PITTSFIELD — A new diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Sustainable funding for an early childhood education program. The expansion of prekindergarten for every elementary school.
Those are among the highlights of a $67.9 million budget approved Wednesday by the Pittsfield School Committee for the coming fiscal year.
The spending figure requires City Council approval during the city budget process next month, and it reflects an increase of about $3.4 million over the current year — a rise of about 4.4 percent.
The district is banking on an increase in state education funding of at least $1.17 million, which is likely to increase after lawmakers on Beacon Hill finalize a statewide spending plan while advocates press officials to stick to funding levels promised in the Student Opportunity Act.
The committee accepted the final spending figure after passing two amendments to the original fiscal 2022 spending plan proposed by the administration.
The first adds $50,000 for the diversity, equity and inclusion officer, one of the recommendations issued by a study group Mayor Linda Tyer convened last fall. The figure represents about a half-year of funding for the position, said interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis, because it would take time to find and hire someone for the position.
After adopting the amendment, Tyer thanked the committee for “your support on this really critical work that we have in front of us,” and School Committee member Mark Brazeau said the position was “desperately needed.”
The budget earmarks $720,000 to expand prekindergarten into every elementary school in the district by hiring teachers for Egremont, Williams, Allendale and Capeless elementary schools, as well as bus monitors, 10 paraprofessionals and two elementary specialists. Also driving the budget request was a $1.6 million increase for contractual obligations, and $338,000 to restore teaching positions at Conte, Williams and Crosby elementary schools that were cut in the current year budget.
The administration also is readying plans for spending millions that are coming down the pike through the federal American Rescue Plan — stimulus money district that officials do not need School Committee or City Council approval to spend.
Based on a funding formula, the district could receive as much as $12.76 million through the stimulus to spend on helping students emotionally and academically recover from the coronavirus pandemic, said Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent for business and finance.
“That’s a significant number, and we know that we need to spend a fair share of that on specifically social, emotional and academic needs of our students as a result of the pandemic,” Behnke said, adding that the money must be spent by fiscal year 2024.
Last month, district administrators announced plans for spending an earlier round of federal pandemic relief, known as “ESSER II” funding, totaling nearly $5.9 million, also under the administration’s purview to spend. According to their proposal, those plans included:
• Nearly $4 million for adding personnel to work at the district over the next two years, including five literacy coaches and two academic interventionists;
• A dean and a lead writing teacher at Reid Middle School;
• Two paraprofessionals at Williams Elementary School;
• An academic support teacher at Pittsfield High School;
• A social/emotional learning coordinator;
• Two special education teachers at Stearns Elementary School;
• An information technology technician;
• A school nurse;
• $375,000 for summer programming for elementary and secondary students.
Federal money also would be used to hire a vice principal of teaching and learning for career, technical and vocational education.
Tammy Gage, the district’s assistant superintendent who handles the city’s vocational programs at Taconic High School, made her case for the position, arguing that it would be a crucial support at a vocational school that has gained enrollment and programs, while facing new state learning requirements in the future.
“With this comes the need for additional oversight to ensure that we are responsible stewards of the $120 million facility that now houses these programs,” Gage said, referring to the new Taconic building.
Additionally, the district’s proposal for the second round of federal funding adds 4.2 full-time-equivalent student adjustment counselors, while the local budget request carves out money for one more counselor, raising to 20.4 the total number of staffers whose job it would be to support students’ mental health across the district, according to a presentation given by Brazeau.
But, Brazeau lobbied for more adjustment counselors, and presented a proposal for 14.7 new counselors, which would mean more than 35 for the district, at a cost of $1.2 million.
“The pandemic has increased the need for support to unimaginable levels … secondary education is not operating far below recommended levels of school adjustment counselors to the population of students; this plan starts to correct that,” he said. “We have to take the necessary steps to correct this now, while we have the funds to do it. With all their federal aid coming over the next two years, and the state aid through SOA [Student Opportunity Act] over the next five to seven years, we have the ability to rectify this.”
The district could use federal grant money to hire more counselors, but Curtis said the money would dry up in two years, a temporary employment window that could make it even more difficult to hire qualified counselors for a job that Ann Marie Carpenter, the district’s director of social emotional learning and student support, said requires individuals with “really superb training and experience” to fill.
An amendment proposed by School Committee member William Cameron, which passed unanimously, directed the district to find $160,000 in the operational budget for home-based early childhood educational programming for 50 2-year-olds and their parents. He indicated that the funding source makes the services more sustainable over the long term, compared with using federal relief money.
The budget request was adopted by unanimous vote of the six-member School Committee, which is down one member after Dennis Powell, also the president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch, resigned.
School Committee member Dan Elias noted that spending plans for the next fiscal year include adding a number of employees. While some of the new positions are designed to be short term and end when the grant money runs out, Elias said other grant-funded positions are not.
“At some point, these funding sources do dry out. And we have a history, in all the years I’ve been here, and that is that in order to try to hang on to some of these positions, we are forced into the predicament of teacher contracts that end up being one- to one-and-a-half percent teacher raises. And we find ourselves in the situation we are now: We’re a bit behind. What we do now affects four to five years down the road,” he said.
“There must be a long-term, sustainable plan or you will end up hurting the very thing that you love,” Elias added.