Mayor Daniel Bianchi speaks at Wednesday's School Committee meeting about the $200,000 in cuts imposed by the City Council.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee voted 6-1 Wednesday to distribute the impact of a controversial City Council cut to its fiscal 2014 budget over a variety of line items.
The budget shortfall, resulting from a 6-5 vote by the council in June to appropriate $200,000 less than requested, will be absorbed through cuts to non-personnel expense areas, including fuel, computers, library supplies, vocational supplies, telephones, and testing.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi criticized the move by Councilor Barry Clairmont and the five other councilors who supported it, saying the appropriation requested had been the result of months of "very arduous" decisions.
"We put together a budget that we thought was perfect, which by the way was $1.3 million lower in the end from the beginning," said Bianchi. "But then people had to have their minute on stage, and $200,000 came off."
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristin Behnke said there were very few areas to cut that would not involve layoffs, with 87 percent of the department's budget being allocated for staff payroll.
"We tried to spread the cuts out so they would affect the classroom as little as possible," Behnke told the committee. "It's not without some pain."
The School Department's plan runs contrary to the recommendation entailed in the council's narrowly approved decision, which was prompted by budget surpluses in fuel heating costs in recent years.
Clairmont, who championed the cut, spoke again at Wednesday's committee meeting in support of his suggestion to cut the nearly quarter-million amount from the fuel budget, and to return to the council for an additional sum if it were truly needed.
Committee member Kathleen Amuso supported this course, though critical of the council's decision to second guess the School Department's estimates, and motioned to take the whole sum from the fuel line item in the hopes of returning for an additional appropriation later.
"Maybe it'll be that we were right, or maybe somebody knows something we don't," said Amuso.
Newly hired Superintendent Jason McCandless voiced reluctance to the uncertain prospect of having to return to the City Council for an emergency appropriation later, maintaining that the distribution of the cuts between funding items was the safest course of action.
"We just felt that spreading it across several different cost centers within the budget would allow us to still have forward movement, though not as much as we'd like," McCandless said, "but exposed us to less risk of actually incurring a substantial shortfall as we approach the end of the year."
Members of the committee expressed particular discomfort with a $20,000 cut to vocational supplies, at a time when the school system is attempting to demonstrate to the state its commitment to improving vocational programming as it seeks revamp or rebuild Taconic High School. Despite the reduction, however, the vocational supplies budget will still see an increase of $130,000 over last year.
Still, Bianchi thought the overall shifting of cuts would be manageable without having to depend on the support of the council.
"We have the opportunity throughout the year to make transfers that won't be subject to City Council approval, they'll only be subject to our approval," said the mayor, who sits on the School Committee by virtue of his office.
"If we ever did have to go back to the City Council, I would prefer to have to go back and ask for more money for the fuel account," said Amuso, citing the difficulty of having to quantify the negative impact of the wider variety of expenditure cuts. "I think they would understand that they were the ones who reduced it thinking it [fuel cost] migh be lower, and if it ends up not being lower and we have to go back I'd rather do it that way."
"We just felt like taking it from one place was giving too easy an answer to too easy a question," said McCandless. "I think the assumption that we're almost a quarter million over budget in utilities is incorrect, and not that responsible a way to respond."
Amuso's motion to take the funding out of the fuel account was defeated 6-1, followed by a 6-1 decision to approve the more diverse cuts proposed by the school administration.
"There's not a right choice here, it's just the best choice," said Chairman Alfred E. Barbalunga.