Pittsfield mayor reins in superintendent's plan for cash infusion

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PITTSFIELD — Superintendent Jason McCandless shrunk his budget proposal for the next fiscal year after a meeting with City Hall leaders.

The budget as presented during a School Committee meeting on Wednesday amounts to a $63.5 million request from the city, reflecting an increase of about $3 million over the current year.

McCandless originally presented a budget last month that was about $500,000 higher than the one presented Wednesday. The state is poised to give the city more than ever in school reimbursements, which lands amid a larger conversation about the commonwealth's school funding formula.

McCandless said at the time of the original proposal that it was crucial that money go directly to the kids who need it most. But since then, he said Wednesday, he's spent "a few sleepless nights wrestling with this."

The city expects a $3.7 million increase to its state reimbursement, and the revised proposal leaves about $700,000 for the city to use toward school building maintenance and health insurance costs for school employees.

Those items come out of the city's general fund rather than the school budget, officials noted during the meeting.

"We want to be able to balance the needs of academics with the pressure of health insurance," said Mayor Linda Tyer, who sits on the School Committee.

McCandless acknowledged health insurance is "a massive expense" that state leaders took into account when reformulating its reimbursements.

The committee will take a vote on the budget proposal later this month. McCandless said his department is still working out the budget details.

"There's some things that we will have to figure out " he said, but "we think that we can get there with this number."

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Cynthia Taylor and Dennis Powell, both School Committee members, signaled disappointment that McCandless now proposes leaving funds for the city when advocates lobbied so hard to the state for more support for kids.

"It bothers me that we're leaving money on the table," Taylor said.

McCandless said he doesn't completely disagree, but most of the influx is still going where it needs to. And "this health insurance beast impacts — in some way — every student."

Others at the table pointed to the fact that other districts have to cover health insurance out of their departmental budget, and School Committee member William Cameron said some other districts also have to cover school building needs departmentally.

"This is helping us keep the staffing that we have," Cameron said of kicking funds to the city.

"It's certainly a fair number," said Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke, noting rising health insurance costs.

Tyer said she's anxious about how the state numbers are going to shake out, and so it's also important to build a buffer in the budget "while they're still arm-wrestling over this."

McCandless said he is grateful to Tyer and to Finance Director Matt Kerwood for their support, saying the budget still allows Pittsfield Public Schools to do important things for the city's children.

"It's hyper-respectful of what we wanted to do with and for kids," he said.

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


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