Dozens of Pittsfield school food services workers likely to be laid off

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PITTSFIELD — With Pittsfield schools poised to open remotely next week, about 50 employees of the food services department are facing layoffs.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless told the Pittsfield School Committee on Wednesday that the district expects that it will need only 20 food services workers to handle meals for students during the remote learning period, which begins Tuesday. The department has 70 employees.

"There is no question that we will be looking at layoffs among our food service individuals, who really exist in a space for their work that is not within our budget," McCandless said. "Their entire operation exists outside of our budget; it's the only piece of what we do that is self-sustaining."

The district decided last month to start the school year remotely, with an eventual phase-in to a hybrid learning model, but the timing of the transition is uncertain.

Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent of administration and finance, said employees who are laid off would retain their benefits through October.

Hopefully, the district will have "a large number of students back in the hybrid model at that point," she said. "So, it may even work out that we're able to bring them back before their benefits expire."

The district participates in the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture Community Eligibility Provision, which allows the districts in low-income areas to offer free breakfasts and lunches to students. That will continue, regardless of whether students are learning remotely or in person.

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"Our district is a free breakfast and lunch district K-12 this year for the first time ever, but the other income we have is reimbursements for meals served, and the number of meals served are about a tenth of what they are when you have buildings full of staff and students," McCandless said.

Katherine Yon, chairwoman of the School Committee, said that when school buildings are open, students forge connections with food services workers in the lunch line but that without lunch lines, there simply isn't as much work to be done.

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"If we don't go back to in-person school, that really does eliminate the need for cafeteria workers. This really is the local, human face of this pandemic," she said.

McCandless said the district is negotiating with the employees union to find alternative work for some impacted nutritional services workers "until we get back to having more kids in the school, and thus more meals being served," he said.

On a brighter note, he said, the district does not expect any other employee units will be hit with layoffs, and he added that it was able to pull back the employees to whom it already had sent layoff notices, with some positions yet to fill.

Also on Wednesday, the School Committee voted unanimously in favor of member Dennis Powell's proposal to transfer $50,000 into the budget for cultural competency programming.

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The budget for programming overseen by Cultural Proficiency Coach Shirley Edgerton had been cut to zero in the district's fiscal 2021 budget.

The money was transferred from the budget line for special education paraprofessionals. Behnke said more than six special education paraprofessionals have resigned, including some within the first few days of the professional development period.

McCandless thanked the School Committee for restoring the money, for which he said Edgerton has plans to use to increase opportunities for students in the coming school year.

"That funding that you've just provided makes that work much much more doable — to take it from idea to reality," he said.

It recently was announced that Edgerton is the recipient of a Gateway Cities Innovation Institute Award. She will be honored Oct. 15 for her work diversifying the district's workforce by establishing a program to recruit teachers from historically Black colleges and universities.

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


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