Pittsfield council preliminarily approves $63.5 million schools budget

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PITTSFIELD — The City Council preliminarily approved a $63.5 million budget for city schools Thursday, but first came a heated exchange about whether the city was leaving new state funding on the table.

The vote was 10 to 1, with Ward 7 Councilor Tony Simonelli voting against.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he feared that because the city was not planning to use all of the expected $3.7 million increase in state school reimbursements for students, it meant that it's not making good on its end of the bargain.

To that, Superintendent Jason McCandless said "we share that concern."

The planned $3.7 million influx for the coming fiscal year is unprecedented, officials say, and it reflects an effort at the state level to overhaul how the commonwealth's public schools are funded. McCandless originally had planned to use all of the historic increase for investments in schools, but Mayor Linda Tyer and her team urged him to pull back his spending plan, saving about $500,000 to apply to health insurance for school employees — an expense that comes from the city's general fund rather that the departmental budget.

But because the state budget is not yet finalized, some argued that there could be an even larger windfall in the wings.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, told councilors they should use the state House budget as the floor; the governor's budget is typically referred to as the lowest possible reimbursement for planning purposes. And while she knows health insurance is a "budget buster," she said legislators warring over whose students deserve more funding will be watching how Pittsfield uses this new money.

"This is a battle in the Statehouse right now," she said.

Krol said investing that hard-won money into schools is "the least we can do." He moved to refer the budget back to the mayor, under the premise that all of the expected influx be applied to students.

"For me, there's nothing more important than the schools," he said.

Tyer promised to work with McCandless to possibly appropriate more money for schools if the state sees fit to dole out more than the expected $3.7 million increase. Still, she said, the city should move cautiously into this uncharted territory.

"I would emphasize this is a brand new formula " she said. "I think we have to be conservative here."

Other councilors argued that money spent on health insurance was still money spent on schools, and Krol's motion failed 9-2, with Krol and Ward 2 Councilor Helen Moon voting in favor.

Simonelli went the opposite direction, moving to ask Tyer and McCandless to reduce the budget $280,000. He said the city has pressing issues — like crime and deteriorating roads — and the department hasn't successfully made the case for the spending increase.

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"This, to me, feels slightly mean-spirited, to be honest with you," McCandless told councilors, telling them that all of the items included in his budget are, indeed, needs, and not wants.

But other councilors argued that it was counterproductive to the issue of crime to take money away from city schools.

"Taking away from the schools budget is, I think, going to contribute to the increased crime rate," Moon said.

 Simonelli's motion failed 10 to 1.

McCandless told The Eagle in an earlier interview that this is the first budget he has worked on for the city that includes no pink slips, or layoffs.

Jennifer Stokes, special education director for the district, said school principals in Pittsfield asked for help around reading and math interventions, and so funding will be used to support that request. That means hiring new academic intervention teachers, as well as ensuring that each of the schools has access to the same level of intervention materials.

The district plans to add five intervention teachers, as well as at least five special education instruction and accountability coordinators.

These coordinators are intended to serve as a point of contact for families of students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, and they will oversee those plans even as students move beyond their current level.

"They are the measurer of the goals," McCandless told councilors.

Their existence allows special education teachers more time and energy to teach.

The budget also includes a $250,000 increase for curriculum upgrades, and a $250,000 increase for school security revisions.

McCandless said more school shootings mean schools everywhere need to bolster their security measures.

"Clearly, the lessons of the last 20 years in America suggest this is a good investment," he told The Eagle.

He said he plans to hire a restorative justice consultant, and the budget also includes a $50,000 budget for the district's cultural competency coach.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadranr on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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