School budget

A $67.3 million school spending plan received preliminary approval from the Pittsfield City Council on Monday. Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke outlined what is driving the 4.4 percent budget increase.

PITTSFIELD — A $67.3 million school spending plan received preliminary approval from the City Council on Monday, when councilors zeroed in on concerns about teacher and student retention.

The Pittsfield Public Schools budget for next fiscal year represents a 4.4 percent increase over the two most recent fiscal years. Last year, the city adopted a level-funded budget amid concerns that the coronavirus pandemic would send state education funding cratering.

Among the expenses included in the budget are an estimated $1.6 million for contractual obligations, though interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis said negotiations with the district’s employee unions over new contracts are ongoing. It also includes money for a new Information and Support Services and Networking program and the restoration of four elementary literacy positions the district says were cut from this year’s budget.

It carves out $720,000 for prekindergarten, money that will be put to work hiring four additional teachers and 10 paraprofessionals, Curtis said. Prekindergarten will be expanded into every elementary school, with one classroom for 4-year-olds in each of the city’s eight elementary schools.

The classrooms will have a mix of typical education and special education students, Curtis said, to serve a total of 165 children. Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said that, based on the district’s kindergarten enrollment of 400, there won’t be space for all 4-year-olds.

With the expansion, though, special education students will avoid having to switch elementary schools, she said.

“What it will allow us to do is to serve special education students within their home schools,” she said. “We will not be a one-stop shop for every single parent who needs preschool in the city.”

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Several councilors drilled into the district’s track record on student and teacher retention. Councilor Earl Persip III said the issues have been front and center during his time on the council, yet he said they were not adequately addressed in the Pittsfield Public Schools budget.

“What I think keeps students here in the district is teachers,” he said. “Constantly losing teachers, and teachers that have been with these students for a long time, I think that affects our students going off to these other cities around the area.”

Councilor Anthony Maffuccio echoed Persip’s concern and said he could not vote for the budget because of concerns about the cost of prekindergarten programming, the rates at which students are choosing to attend other districts and teacher pay.

“For those reasons alone, I cant justify this budget until there’s an organizational audit of the school department,” Maffuccio said.

Curtis said the negotiations with the unions prevented him from discussing specifics about educator pay. The district retains educators of color for a "dramatically" shorter period of time than their white counterparts, Curtis said. But, he said it was impossible to say why teacher turnover, which is, on the whole, average for the state but below average at some schools, is occurring, because the district hasn’t collected data on the matter since 2006.

The council preliminarily accepted the fiscal year 2022 Pittsfield Public Schools budget by a vote of 8 to 1, with Maffuccio voting against the spending plan, Councilor Kevin Morandi abstaining because a family member works in the district and Council President Peter Marchetti absent as he recovers from a surgery, said Councilor Pete White.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.

Amanda Burke covers Pittsfield City Hall for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.