Pittsfield schools retain programs but see cuts in kindergarten, vocational training programs
PITTSFIELD — The long-term fiscal trends are not encouraging, but the Pittsfield Public Schools are entering the 2016-17 year with a level of programming similar to last fall.
"We are grateful to have a successful budget process behind us," Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said, referring to the review that ended in June with adoption of a $60.3 million budget.
That spending plan requires a $1.8 million hike in the city tax appropriation for the schools, or 3.1 percent. Even with the increase, however, McCandless noted that fixed-cost hikes forced cuts in such areas as vocational education staffing, where three positions were eliminated.
Cuts in kindergarten programming also became necessary after the state budget eliminated nearly $400,000 in grant funding that the district had received for several years.
"We had that cut out from under us, and it represented about half our kindergarten budget citywide," McCandless said, adding that the city made up for the funding loss to continue those programs.
As has been the case year-to-year, McCandless said the budget components driving annual increases that have lurched beyond annual tax increases from the city include employee raises, health insurance costs, required special education programming, and the costs associated with complying with state and federal testing, staff evaluations and other mandated spending.
On the plus side, he said, the state budget did not include any cuts the school system hadn't anticipated, and all of the employee unions are now in the second or third year of contract agreements, so the annual increases will be known.
"Really, the challenge is that we have to do this year after year," the superintendent said.
One potential source of additional funding — state Chapter 70 aid to school districts, especially those with many students from low-income families — doesn't appear anywhere on the horizon at this point, he said, despite advocacy by many school officials, teachers, lawmakers and parents.
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon echoed some of McCandless' concerns.
"I am very concerned about the upcoming budget year, especially in light of the city's fiscal situation," Yon said. "In addition, I don't foresee the state coming through with extra funding. The deficits in Chapter 70 funding have not been addressed, and a ballot question threatens to take more dollars away to charter schools. The 'fair share' tax, the tax on millionaires, is an initiative that could help, but no action will be taken on that until 2018. I also believe Massachusetts is going to have to assess moving to a different tax structure. A flat tax unfairly burdens those on the lower end of the scale."
But she added, "Having said all that, I do look forward to the school year. A new school year reflects a clean slate, a new beginning ... We have seniors in high school anticipating adulthood and little ones in kindergarten just beginning their educational careers. Excitement abounds and the possibilities are endless. What could be better than that?"
Often cited is the state's Foundation Budget Review Commission, which reported that the state aid formula significantly underestimates the cost of adequately educating those students and funding other rising costs, such as for health insurance.
Pittsfield School Committee members and some city councilors noted during the budget review process in June that annual Chapter 70 state aid increases to Pittsfield in the past were in the $1 million range, compared to less than half that figure in recent years. Meanwhile, other costs have soared, they said.
"Our hope is that the state takes seriously the rising costs [of education], but we know we are not going to see any more funding for the moment," McCandless said.
And he noted that a referendum on the Nov. 8 state ballot asks whether the charter school system can expand beyond the current cap. McCandless, School Committee members, members of the United Educators of Pittsfield and local state lawmakers are among those staunchly opposed to raising the charter school cap, as school districts lose state aid when a student opts to attend a charter school rather than a district school.
And a final concern this fall, he said, is that, because the state is experiencing a tax revenue shortfall currently, the governor and Legislature might consider some mid-fiscal year budget cuts that could affect school systems.
In spending, "We are being really conservative, and proceeding cautiously," he said.
McCandless said a long-term positive development that is gaining momentum is the Berkshire County Education Task Force, which involves officials and others representing most of the 32 communities and school districts in the county.
In those periodic meetings, the focus is on cooperative and collaborative efforts to come to grips with a "school age population that has decreased dramatically over the past 10 to 15 years," McCandless said.
There is a stark realization, he said, that cooperation and sharing of resources will become more and more a necessity.
Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.
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