Pittsfield School Committee OKs spending plan for new $1.3M in state funds for schools

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PITTSFIELD — A new spending plan unanimously approved by the School Committee on Monday makes way for an expansion of the district's alternative education program on Eagle Street.

School leaders also plan to add a restorative justice center in each middle school, common planning time for the city's elementary schools, grade level sections at Egremont and Crosby elementary schools and an autism consultant.

Because the final state budget included $1.3 million more for Pittsfield schools than accounted for during the city's springtime budget process, a new spending plan for the current fiscal year is up for review this week by the School Committee and City Council. The new funds are part of an unprecedented $5 million increase in state reimbursements for Pittsfield schools.

The influx comes as state leaders overhaul the public school funding formula. Statewide increases reflect agreement among legislators that children living in poverty are more expensive to teach; more than half of the city's public school students are considered economically disadvantaged.

If approved on Tuesday by the City Council, some $580,000 of the new funds will fuel the district's alternative education program on Eagle Street. Most of that money will go toward hiring more staff for the program — which serves both middle and high school students — and $38,800 will go toward rent and physical costs associated with moving 16 alternative education students from Herberg Middle School into the Eagle Street space.

"Those are the students that really need deep interventions," Superintendent Jason McCandless said of the students he plans to move from Herberg.

He said it's been challenging to house the program alongside the hundreds of other students that must be served at the school. Absent the audience of their peers, he said the district will be able to saturate them in therapeutic and academic support.

The expanded Eagle Street program could serve a maximum of 60 students with the planned staffing, McCandless said, while the current Eagle Street program serves 20. Also at the Eagle Street location, he plans to spend $95,000 to hire a director for the program, $55,000 for a middle school math and science teacher, $160,000 for two school adjustment counselors, $120,000 for two life skills specialists, and $110,000 for two high school-level academic teachers.

"We're looking at students who are dealing with trauma," McCandless said. "Either in their past or ongoing."

The idea isn't to keep students in the alternative program, he said, but to transition them back alongside their peers as they are able.

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"It's not a life sentence," he said.

To provide elementary school teachers with long-sought common planning time, McCandless plans to hire six support staff at a budgeted cost of $120,000. Paraprofessionals can be "oxygen for our lungs" when it comes to serving traumatized kids, he said.

He also plans to spend $55,000 on a math interventionist for Capeless and Stearns elementary schools, $48,500 each for additional grade level sections at Egremont and Crosby elementary schools, $75,000 for an autism consultant, and $85,000 for two deportment teachers to run new restorative justice centers at each middle school.

McCandless said an autism consultant will help the district better serve students with autism, as well as avoid costly out-of-district placements for those students. And deportment teachers staffing the new restorative justice centers will focus on helping students understand and correct their behavior and avoid suspensions.

He also aims to set aside $273,600 of the new state funds for health insurance costs associated with the 19 additional school employees. Since the cheapest insurance plan costs the city $8,000 a year per employee, he said — and the "middle of the road" plan costs $14,000 a head — he said it's appropriate to use some of the new funds to cover those costs for employees hired under the influx.

School Committee member William Cameron noted "this is a real scramble" to hire 19 new employees this close to the start of school, and McCandless agreed but said the district has to take opportunities as they come.

Mayor Linda Tyer was unable to attend the meeting but said the plan has her full support.

Now, the unprecedented $47,686,062 in state reimbursements becomes Pittsfield's new baseline.

"This is not grant money that we get for a couple of years and it goes away," McCandless said. "Next year, we build off this number."

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


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