PITTSFIELD — Will public school districts be able to safely and successfully reopen and best serve all students in the fall?
Hundreds of educators are saying, "no way," particularly as schools across the commonwealth are bracing for staff and budget cuts and severe reductions in Chapter 70 state aid due unfunded legislation and economic strains caused by the COVID-19 crisis.
On Monday, Pittsfield and other Berkshire County educators and their supporters will be on the front lines launching a statewide series of " Week of Action" demonstrations backed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Rallies are planned for 4 p.m. in Park Square in Pittsfield and at North Adams City Hall. Demonstrations are also expected in Adams and Great Barrington. Elsewhere in the commonwealth, car caravans are being planned through city streets to raise awareness.
June 15 is the statutory deadline for notifying teachers in their first three years of service if their contracts will not be renewed. Deadlines for issuing reduction in force notices to education support professionals, other teachers and staff members vary and are determined by local contracts. Already, hundreds of teachers across the commonwealth have received pink slips notifying them that their contracts will not be renewed in the coming year.
In Pittsfield, as many as 140 educators and administrators have been flagged to receive pink slips on Monday — including every first-year teacher who started prior to Oct. 1, 2019, and who holds a license in their field — though Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless says he hopes to rescind them as state and federal funding streams permit.
"Without 140 teachers, there's no way we're fully going to reopen," United Educators of Pittsfield President Melissa Campbell told The Eagle on Friday.
Campbell said the district's administration, School Committee and Mayor Linda Tyer have all offered their empathy and support to educators.
"Our fight is with state government. Our fight is with the federal government. Our federal government is trying to take money away from us," Campbell said, referring to the cool response of the Republican-led Senate to the proposed, House-approved $3 trillion relief bill that contains aid for K-12 schools.
A long, fraught fight
Campbell took on her union leadership about two years ago, during a statewide " Fund Our Future" campaign urging legislators to pass a Student Opportunity Act committing the state to making significant, equitable, long-term investments into funding public education.
The House and Senate unanimously passed the landmark legislation, which promised heavy cash infusions of $1.5 billion annually over the next seven years into school districts across the commonwealth with high concentrations of students with special needs, English language learners and students from low-income households. Gov. Charlie Baker enacted the legislation on Nov. 26, 2019, despite the fact that legislators had not fully outlined where the money would come from.
"So we were just celebrating bringing $20 million to Pittsfield, then this [pandemic] hit," Campbell said.
She said the anticipated Student Opportunity Act funding was "not a surplus either. We're just trying to get to where we should be. We've been underfunded for years. So we're filling gaps. It's not a bonus."
The impact on Pittsfield is compounded by the fact that the majority of funding for the school district's operating budget — 64 percent — comes in directly from state-furnished Chapter 70 aid allocated to the city, McCandless explained in a June 10 letter to the Pittsfield Public Schools community. About 33 percent of the district's revenue comes directly from the city's coffers, while the district receives the remainder of its funding through school choice tuition and grants. North Adams Public Schools also relies on similar proportions of state aid to operate.
In the letter McCandless equated a 5 percent reduction in Chapter 70 funds to a budget reduction of $2.5 million.
"To give you a reference for what 2.5 million dollars in additional cuts would look like — we could close our two smallest schools, with all of the hurt, anger, and outrage that would come from that action (WE ARE NOT TAKING THAT ACTION — This is hypothetical) and we [will] not even generate 2 million dollars in actual savings. In fact, accounting for unemployment benefit costs, and additional transportation costs, we would likely generate around 1 to 1.2 million dollars in actual real savings — and create great hurt, hardship, and crowding in the process."
The letter also hearkened back to the 1980s when a Massachusetts municipal taxation law went into effect, known as Proposition 2 1/2. The law says municipalities cannot levy more than 2.5 percent of the total full and fair cash value of all taxable real and personal property in the community as a means of raising revenue to fulfill a budget. Proposition 2 1/2 also says a community cannot raise more than 2.5 percent of the previous year's levy limit, without the approval of an override by voters. Essentially, it caps spending and forces municipal departments to live within their means, typically by method of budget cuts.
Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy, a Pittsfield native and alumna of Taconic High School and Berkshire Community College, remembers how the law once led to similarly extreme cuts that Pittsfield currently faces.
"I got my first teaching job in 1990 at Allendale Elementary School and got laid off with 136 other teachers because of the financial crisis," Najimy said.
"Losing 140 educators is not good for the Pittsfield economy. You lose a tax base. You lose consumers. The people who are hurt the most are the students and the families. The schools on the West Side and Morningside, they need major school funding," she said.
The MTA argues that when schools open in the fall, there will be more teachers and support staff members needed, not fewer, to help maintain safety protocols, monitor students' behavior and progress from the effects of not being in schools for months, and to help continue to close preexisting achievement gaps which have since disproportionately widened in the wake of the pandemic.
A flier outlining the union's demands for "adequate revenues for education, families and the economy" suggest revenue can be raised through progressive taxation of the commonwealth's 17 billionaires and other millionaires; closing corporate tax loopholes and making other tax reforms.
Urgent actions, union members say, will best help schools be able to meet the increase in demands for student and staff support, safety equipment, technology and a high-quality free, public education.
"Less money is not the answer," Campbell said. "We need our state and federal government to fund our schools."
Najimy agreed and said, "It's going to be critical that families and educators work together to lay down this set of expectations to reopen schools and do what it's going to take for funding."
Jenn Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.