Our Opinion: Scenarios for schools must be avoided

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Municipal and school officials around the Berkshires and the state are preparing worst case budget scenarios in reaction to the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. That scenario for the Pittsfield Public Schools is hard to accept and one that government must find ways to avoid.

School Supt. Jason "Jake" McCandless told the School Committee Wednesday night that he had adopted scenarios that anticipated both 5 and 10 percent reductions in Chapter 70 education funding from the state, which makes up 64 percent of the city's budget. A 10 percent cut, which would mean a $5 million reduction in the budget, could mean the loss of 140 teachers and administrators.

In an emotional letter to the public school community, the superintendent wrote that he was delivering "one of the most difficult messages I have ever had to deliver and one of the most difficult messages you have ever had to read as someone who cares about children and our community." Because the superintendent will not know how much Chapter 70 funding the school district will receive until later this summer, he must prepare for the worst now. Accordingly, 70 educators who do not have professional teaching status and are on one-year contracts have been notified that their employment ends at the conclusion of the school year. Today, as many as 60 reduction in force notices will be sent to all licensed first-year educators who started before Oct. 1 of last year. More senior educators may receive notices depending on the extent of the funding cuts.

This fall, Pittsfield's schools, like schools across the county and state, will be struggling to reopen after having been shut down since last March by the pandemic. While the pandemic has gone past its peak, COVID-19 will still be with us in the fall. Restarting the schools will be a challenge, and budget cuts in the 5 to 10 percent range will for Pittsfield mean more students per classroom, further complicating the reopening.

It was just last November that the Legislature agreed on a landmark bill increasing education funding by $1.4 billion over seven years. It came in response to a commission report that the state's 1993 education reform law was underfunding schools by between $1-$2 billion annually, and that the greatest inequities were in low income districts. This was a great educational leap for the state, which was in good shape financially. COVID-19 came along a few months later and changed everything.

At the time, The Eagle said editorially that lawmakers should have created a dedicated revenue stream to assure education funding. It should do so now, and while tax increases as the state is still slowly restarting its economy will be difficult to bear, the education of our public school students hangs in the balance and they must be considered.

The Legislature should also consider using some of the rainy day fund, which is at roughly $3.5 billion, to help out school districts, with the districts containing the most low-income students a priority. In his letter, Supt. McCandless urged residents to pressure the state's congressional delegation to seek passage of a federal education assistance package for all of the 50 states.

Supt. McCandless concluded his letter by stating that he hoped his warnings and preparations will at some point in the near future be "viewed as creating alarm and heartache without a need to do so." That would indeed be a best case scenario, as the non-renewal notices would be withdrawn. The impact of the worst case scenario, if realized, would be devastating, and we urge our state and federal lawmakers to see that it does not become reality.

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