Pittsfield School Committee sends level-funded budget back to City Council

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PITTSFIELD — The Pittsfield School Committee narrowly decided on Monday to stick with their original budget proposal, and sent the level-funded spending proposal back to the City Council after nearly four hours of debate.

The School Committee voted 4 to 3 to send the unchanged budget back to city councilors for approval. It is the very same budget that the School Committee unanimously approved in the spring, and the same budget that, by a narrow vote less than a week ago, the council asked the School Committee to reconsider.

Framing what she sees as the council's wishes in sending the budget back to the committee for reconsideration, Councilor Helen Moon, who called into the remote meeting to take part in a public comment period, said councilors wanted to see more funding for education.

"We did have a majority of city councilors that supported this budget coming back before you to increase funding, so I think that should encourage you to think about how you can add funding and those positions back into the budget, because you will get that support back from the City Council," Moon said.

The School Committee is typically in the position of asking the council not to cut its budget, rather than being asked to add to it, said Katherine Yon, chairwoman of the school board. The council tabled the budget at a meeting on June 11 then on June 17 voted in favor of sending it back to the School Committee for reconsideration.

She said that while the council's vote was not accompanied by a formal recommendation for changing the budget, councilors wondered whether the $100,000 trimmed from the Pittsfield Police Department budget could be allocated to the district. She said councilors also discussed the $1.5 million grant the district received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

But Yon said the true state of district finances next school year is still highly uncertain, because the district does not yet know what its allotment of Chapter 70 funding will be. Chapter 70 funding made up about 73 percent of the district's budget last year, according to Superintendent Jake McCandless.

Members spent the bulk of Monday's meeting attempting to flesh out how the 26 positions that are cut under the level-funded budget would impact the district, and whether and how funding could be assembled to avert some of the reductions.

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School Committee member William Cameron said it's too early to make decisions about adding more funding to the budget without knowing state aid levels, saying that "This is being asked of us without being privy, you'd have to be clairvoyant to be privy, about how much Chapter 70 money there's going to be coming Pittsfield's way."

The School Committee's current budget banks on level-funded state education aid and calls for the reduction of 26 positions from the district's roster, though school officials emphasize that all but about three of the reductions could be made through retirements and attrition.

Yon said that even before the School Committee adopted its level-funded budget in May, members were aware that even more grave economic days were ahead, and that "next year could be worse. So there's a feeling that maybe we should save some of the money."

The committee put forth a "reasonable budget" with no actual job loss, or very little job loss, said member Daniel Elias. He said as much as he wants to increase funding, "we also have to act responsibly, and sometimes you have to make a tough decision."

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"I do believe that we put forth an honest budget taking into account our current situation, I fully appreciate the council and other members here being supportive and wanting to do more, but having been through 23 budgets, and none quite like this one, but some tough times nevertheless, I have found out that if we do an unwise action now the consequences when Chapter 70 comes in, and equally as important, next year, could be dire," said Elias.

Member Mark Brazeau said he believes the state will level fund Chapter 70 aid, and said the city has made it clear that it will step up to help ease the pain on the school district if indeed state education funding suffered steep declines. He said "at this point we need to step up to put these positions back on the books."

Member Dennis Powell said the committee has "to really think deeply about how students are going to come back with some serious emotional problems that we really have to address. And clearly councilors and medical professionals are really going to be needed." He supported a proposal put forth by Brazeau to use CARES Act funding to avert reductions included in the level-funded budget, along with "anything else that we can find that we can put into this."

Two proposals to deploy CARES Act grant funding avert some of the reductions, one put forth by Brazeau and the other by Alison McGee, each failed. Mayor Linda Tyer said that using the one-time funding on a recurring expense such as salaries would create a "structural deficit" for next year's budget.

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"When you use one-time funds for operational expenses you're actually creating an even deeper problem in the next year, which may force us to have even more cuts that what we're seeing here in `Tier 1,'" said Tyer, referring to the phrase the district uses when referring to the 26 reductions included in the level-funded school budget.

She also said that the $100,000 trimmed from police could "technically" be applied to the Pittsfield Public Schools budget, and said she is "not opposed to doing that at some point if we find ourselves in a deeper predicament than what we're in today." But Tyer reiterated her preference for reassessing district finances after the city learns how much education funding it will receive from the state.

"I'm not opposed to using that source of funding that was reduced from the police tro put to the schools but I would prefer to do it at a time when we have a much better sense of what the state and federal funding is because if we don't have to use it we're putting ourselves in a stronger position for next year when we have to begin building budgets all over again," said Tyer.

Tyer said she struggles with being asked to decide which of the 26 reductions are and put forth a final motion to appropriate $250,000 of CARES Act funding for retaining some number of those positions, whichever positions the school administration chooses.

Asked whether he thinks it would be best to spend the CARES Act funds now to rescind some of the pink slips handed out in preparation for the level-funded budget, Superintendent Jake McCandless, he is "not comfortable as fiduciary agent to pull back any of the notices until Chapter 70 is known."

"I don't know that what this will get us in the short term is worth it when we have so many unknowns still in front of us," he said.

Cameron said it's premature to commit money out of the CARES Act when the district does not know how school will look next year, or what it's needs will be for personal protective equipment. He also disagreed with using one-time funding to pay for recurring salary expenses. Tyer's motion failed 3 to 4, with Tyer, Brazeau and McGee in favor and Powell, Elias, Yon and Cameron opposed.

The committee then voted 4 to 3 in favor of sending an unchanged budget back to the City Council, with Tyer, Yon, Cameron and Elias in favor and Powell, Brazeau and McGee opposed.


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