Pittsfield Schools Inching Closer To Mayor's Budget Request

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Superintendent Jason McCandless and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke presented aspects of he budget to the School Committee's finance subcommittee on Monday.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School officials are $150,000 closer to hitting the mayor's target.

But they are still $50,000 short of the target.

The School Committee initially requested a $2 million increase in the school budget but Mayor Daniel Bianchi asked them to bring that down to $1 million.

Since Bianchi's request, school officials cut some $800,000 from the first proposal but struggled particularly finding more funds because of  $1.3 million in contractual agreements for step raises for 1,100 employees.

On Monday, Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke reported that the city will receive a boost in federal Title 1 funding and three positions will now be fully funded through that. Additional funds will offset some of the salary for another.

In total, $150,000 more is being allocated for three community coordinator positions to become fully funded by the grant funding, whereas before the cost was split between the school budget and the federal dollars. Another position, the Title 1 coordinator, will switch from being a 50/50 split of grant and local funds to being 75 percent funded by the grant.

"We just learned of that a few days ago," Behnke said. "We are still working on the additional $50,000."

Behnke said the federal government is providing more funds this year because the percentage of city students on free or reduced lunch has increased. The positions are stationed at Crosby, Morningside and Conte elementary schools and serve as essentially an assistant principal for those schools and as a community liaison.

Behnke said school administrators are still looking for ways to hit the mayor's mark.

However, finding cuts are hindered by requirements. Not only does the school system have $1.3 million in contractual agreements, the committee also expressed frustration with state mandates that do not come with additional revenues to fund them.

Superintendent Jason McCandless estimates that at least $250,000 of the budget pays for state requirements. That does not include annual expenses such as transportation, which as a municipal school system receives no reimbursement from the state.

Particularly McCandless pointed out the ReTell requirement of providing all teachers with additional training for English as a second language students; new teacher evaluation system; PARCC testing and aligning with the national crime data with employees as three newer requirements taxing the budget.

"We felt all of these have positive impacts on safety and learning," he said, but added that it is "frustrating" that the requirements don't come with additional compensation to pay for them.

School Committee member Anthony Riello said there are many expenses that the school system has to pay because of mandates and contracts.

McCandless said the ReTell training is a graduate-level course required of all teachers and principals. The new evaluation system has "come a great cost for teacher training" in terms of time and professional development.

Meeting national crime database requirements is coming at a cost of $60,000 and the schools are spending a total of $100,000 for the computer systems to administer the PARCC testing.

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers is being considered to replace the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.

"How do we keep absorbing these cuts? This has to come from the budget," said Finance Committee Chairman Anthony Riello.

Part of next year's budget proposal calls for lowering the balance in revolving accounts. Behnke said the main revolving accounts for tuition revenues will be decreasing by some $65,000.

The three tuition accounts are expected to produce $646,00 in revenue while expenses will be at $710,000.

Meanwhile the circuit breaker account — a state funded line for special education needs — will see about $1 million in expenses with $935,000 in revenue.

The revenue for those accounts changes throughout the year, she said, depending on the various factors. The revenue for many of those accounts come in at the end of the year and are rolled into the next budget cycle. The accounts provide a source of funding provided something unexpected happens.

McCandless said a special education student transferring to the school unexpectedly could result in the need for as much as $250,000 to provide services. That would be where the circuit breaker account comes into play.

"I believe we're living on the edge," Riello said of the amount of change and unexpected costs that could arise in a fiscal year.

Tags: budget cuts,   fiscal 2015,   school budget,   

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