Bianchi Pushes for $1M Cut From FY15 School Budget

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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The School Department is trying to cut $1 million out of the proposed fiscal 2015 budget.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Department has been told to cut $1 million from its proposed $58 million fiscal 2015 budget.

That's the target that Mayor Daniel Bianchi has given the School Department to pare down to from its initial proposed budget increase of $2 million over this year's $56.4 million budget.

Keeping the increase to $1 million will do little to address the district's priorities for growth, but it will maintain the current level of services and avoid cuts to core educational personnel, according to school officials.

So far, the administration has only figured out how to get the increase down to $1.2 million. It presented this budget, for about $57.4 million, to the School Committee on Wednesday.

"To get to a $1.2 million increase instead of a $2 million increase, we are not able to include all of our budget priorities," said Kristin Behnke, assistant superintendent for finance. "However, this budget does not include substantial cuts to the instructional core, which is the heart of our mission as a school district."

Contractual obligations for already-negotiated teacher salaries necessitate an additional $1.3 million, leaving little room in next year's budgets for new initiatives and much-needed equipment.

The department is preparing its prospective budget earlier this year to comply with stricter guidelines in the city's recently enacted charter, which contains a stipulation that the school budget be presented to the City Council by May 1. This will prompt the School Committee to vote for a finalized budget proposal on April 30, compared to June 12 last year.

"There's lots of things we'd like to see added, that are not added," said committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon.

Bianchi said taxpayers cannot bear the brunt of a greater increase on the school side of the budget this year, since they will have burdens on the city side to pay for as well. In particular, Bianchi referenced the poor condition of the city's roads.

"I've given the School Department a target, and they haven't met it yet," said Bianchi. "It would be a significant tax increase if we were to accept the school budget as proposed."

Bianchi blamed this in part on less-than-expected funding allotments from the state. 

"They haven't gone down, but the rate of increase has declined," he explained. "We've got less coming in that we were hoping for."

More than two-thirds of the school budget, approximately $40 million, will come from state Chapter 70 funding, money that is allocated in part on enrollment numbers. In Berkshire County, that means declining funding, as every school district in the county except one has seen drops in school population, with a 13 percent decrease in students in Pittsfield over the past 20 years.

"We cannot always get what we want, and sometimes we can't even get everything that we need," said Superintendent Jason McCandless, noting that because of the unavoidable $1.3 million in step raises, "if we're looking for a $1 million increase in funding, we're starting out with a $300,000 deficit."
McCandless said the administration will keep working to find a way to reduce its proposed budget another $200,000 to bring it in line with the mayor's mandate, in a way that impacts student education the least.
"We have some difficult decisions to make, and this is an important discussion," said Yon.

Tags: fiscal 2015,   pittsfield schools,   school budget,   

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