PITTSFIELD — During its final night of budget hearings, the City Council on Thursday voted 9-2 to give preliminary approval to the Pittsfield school district’s budget request for $72.4 million.
The school district budget makes up about 38 percent of the city’s overall operating budget for fiscal 2023, which also received a preliminary approval by the council on Thursday night in a 8-3 vote.
Over the course of four budget hearings, the council has recommended that Mayor Linda Tyer increase her initial budget proposal of $188.1 million to allocate another $1,000 for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, $50,000 for the city’s building inspectors and $65,000 for building maintenance to city schools.
A final vote on the budget will be held during the council’s next regular meeting on June 14.
District officials told the council that driving their budget’s $5.08 million increase — or 7.6 percent increase — over last year’s budget was a substantial pay increase for many district employees.
Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent for business and finance, said that because of increases in state funding, the district would be asking taxpayers to cover only $492,336 — about 0.73 percent of that increase.
For years, teachers and support staff who have left the district have cited pay rates lower than in neighboring districts. Councilors pushed the district, particularly during the last year’s budget process, to close the pay gap between Pittsfield and its neighbors.
This year, Pittsfield Public School Committee Chair Bill Cameron told the council that the district has made an important step in that direction.
“We can’t yet afford to pay what Mount Greylock and Lenox pay their staff but we are moving in that direction,” Cameron said. “If we are to keep and recruit the best, if we’re to lessen our decades-long role of serving as a Triple-A farm team for other districts, then we must pay significantly more than we have to date.”
Superintendent Joseph Curtis told the council that 92 percent of the increase in the district’s budget — about $4.7 million — has been allocated to contractual obligations with employees.
When asked by Councilor Earl Persip III how long it would take to match the pay of districts like Lenox or Mount Greylock, Curtis said it was like something that would happen over the next three or four negotiations with school unions.
In February, the district negotiated a new contract with the United Educators of Pittsfield, a union that represents more than 500 educators in the district.
Melissa Campbell, the UEP president and a Herberg Middle School teacher, spoke in support of the district’s budget.
“It’s imperative that Pittsfield Public Schools is offering competitive salaries and a safe and positive work environment,” Campbell said. “Please consider the enormous amount of work that went into creating an agreement that benefits all of Pittsfield by supporting the education of our students.”
While the budget package has the support of the teachers union, no member of the Pittsfield Federal of School Employees — the union representing paraprofessionals, bus drivers and attendants, cafeteria workers, custodians, and educational secretaries — came forward to voice their opinion on the budget.
PFSE and district representatives continue to work through mediation over an impasse on the contract between union members and the district. Over recent months, members of the union have asked district officials to put more towards support staff salaries which many members have called below a living wage.
Curtis said he was confident that the district’s budget would cover any settlement with PFSE, but he held off on saying how much the district had set aside for those employees specifically.
Councilor Karen Kalinowsky, who along with Councilor Anthony Maffuccio voted against the district’s budget, said while she supported increases for teachers and support staff, she felt there were too many administrators with sizable salaries in the district.
“I don’t think our taxpayers can keep affording this,” Kalinowsky said. “I still think you’re top heavy.”
The district’s budget would reduce the number of elementary teachers throughout the district by eight positions, the number of elementary specialist teachers by two positions and the number of teachers at PHS by three. Curtis has said that this would be done by leaving positions open from retirements and staff departures and not through layoffs.
Along with these staffing changes, the district is planning to add a high school librarian, a teacher and two paraprofessional for another pre-K classroom, an English Learner teacher at Egremont Elementary, a substantially separate teacher at Crosby Elementary, two inclusion special education teachers at Stearns Elementary and two teachers at Taconic High School.
Kalinowsky also spoke against the district’s decision to end a $125 per student sports fee next year. District officials said they planned to cover the fee from their own budget rather than having families pay for student participation in sports in an effort to make the district sports programs more accessible.
Kalinowsky said the families she’d spoken with had no problem covering the fee and pointed out that the district already had a policy of waiving the fee for students who identified that the money was a barrier to playing sports.
Curtis said that while some students were good at advocating for themselves or their families, the district didn’t want to put the onus on a student to reveal their financial status to participate in sports.