Our Opinion: Explore ways to avoid education cuts

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Berkshire residents are accustomed to seeing protest gatherings in this turbulent 2020. Black Lives Matter protests at least temporarily gave way Monday to demonstrations by Pittsfield educators fearful of what state budget cuts will bring this fall.

In Pittsfield, about 200 people wearing or carrying the Massachusetts Teachers Association slogan "Fund Our Future" gathered around the perimeter of Park Square in a rally organized by Melissa Campbell, president of United Educators of Pittsfield and an eighth grade teacher at Herberg Middle School. In downtown North Adams, about 50 educators and advocates gathered for a rally organized by North Adams Teachers Association co-presidents Michelle "Shelly" Darling, a teacher at Drury High School, and Lisa Tanner, a fourth grade teacher at Colegrove Park Elementary in North Adams.

The severe economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to punishing cuts in public education funding by the state, cuts that would come when schools reopen with a likely combination of classroom learning under new safety guidelines and remote learning. The potential impact hit home in Pittsfield last week when Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless warned of a worst case scenario in which 140 educators would lose their jobs in the event of a 10 percent cut in state Chapter 70 funding, which makes up a little more than 60 percent of the city's school budget.

Educators Monday urged funding of the federal $3 trillion HEROES Act, an assistance bill that would include $90 billion in aid for public education. The bill has passed the House but is stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. If it fails to become law, the crippling impact will be felt by schools, small businesses and employees across the nation.

At the state level, lawmakers have proposed targeted tax increases and use of the rainy day fund to compensate for funding cuts to education. To its credit, Beacon Hill built a substantial $3.5 billion rainy day fund during recent good economic years. The pandemic crisis has indisputably brought about economic rainy days.

North Adams hasn't projected the potential impact of Chapter 70 funding cuts, but they would be devastating as well. "Less teachers means less programs for kids," said Ms. Darling of what will be a stressful school year anyway.

According to state data, 66 percent of the 311 students enrolled at Colegrove faced economic disadvantages before the pandemic. This reflects the economic struggles North Adams has long faced and will be exacerbated by the loss of Crane Stationery.

Cuts in state education funding will be felt to varying degrees around Berkshire County but nowhere more painfully than in the the county's two cities. The state addressed funding inequities among poorer and wealthier school districts only last fall and those gains cannot be lost.

As federal assistance cannot be counted upon, Beacon Hill will once again have to step up. Education funding is indeed an investment in the future and Berkshire County and the state cannot retreat on that investment no matter how trying the economic times.

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