Pittsfield Approves $56 Million School Budget

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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Superintendent Jason McCandless presented the budget to the City Council on Thursday night.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council gave their stamp of approval Thursday to the school system's $56 million operating budget.

The budget is $1 million more than last year, representing a 1.78 percent change from last year.

According to Superintendent Jason McCandless, the budget allows the schools to "hold on to what we have and build in very focused areas for impacts."

"We wanted to build a budget that is respectful to the public that we all serve," McCandless said, adding the process was "transparent, inclusive and meets the needs of the district and the students."

Building the budget started with the reaching a deal with the unions that calls for $1.3 million in contractual obligations. School officials said they wanted $90,000 to hire special education unit leaders dedicated to crafting individualize education plans, $100,000 in career and technical education and $200,000 for equipment and personnel to prepare for the switch to Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessments.

And they knew they wanted to replace their bus fleet.

School officials entered the process knowing of $765,000 for those wants and then the $1.3 million for contracts when Mayor Daniel Bianchi asked for them to keep it within $1 million increase.

"This is basically level services. This is not representative of where the School Committee wants to go," said School Committee member Katherine Yon.

The School Committee then set to task in reducing other lines. Of the $765,000 the school wanted, school officials cut the PARCC request to $80,000; $100,000 for career technical education and emptied the transportation revolving account to reduce the impact on the bus fleet purchase.

Meanwhile, they found out there would be $255,000 increase in state circuit breaking funding; decreased bus maintenance by $90,000; reduced heating costs by $65,000; estimated savings of an additional $102,000 for electricity because efficiency projects had been completed; moved $140,000 in salaries to be paid from a federal Title 1 grant and then another $49,000 for another position to a Title IIA grant.

The PARCC testing is the new item that caused the most conversation Thursday night. Those tests are eyed to be the replacement for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Schools have the option of staying with MCAS or switching to PARCC this year and the change will cost money for schools to acquire the technology needed to perform them. The exams are performed on computers, iPads or Chromebooks.

"It seems very likely after several meetings with the commissioner ... it seems as though the Department is moving full stead ahead with PARCC," McCandless said. "If w can give our students a head start, if we can give our teachers a head start, then, why not?"

By opting to go with PARCC, a decision not finalized yet, McCandless says both the student and staff will be ahead of many districts in the state because of the experience.

The district is now planning on spending $40,000 for the new technology - and holding off to see if newer technology hits the market before the exams are required - and $40,000 for staffing to prepare.

While the numbers do match up for this year, the City Council is worried about the numbers next year. The school will again be responsible for $1.3 million more in contractual agreements then and this year the school exhausted its transportation revolving account to offset the first debt bill for the new buses. Next year, the school will have a $570,000 debt bill with little funds in the transportation account.

Nonetheless, the City Council has confidence in school officials.

"I think there is a very honest effort by the School Department and the School Committee," said Councilor At Large Barry Clairmont.

Clairmont says he still thinks there are areas where the school can cut but he feels that under a new superintendent, the district is righting the finances. Therefore, Clairmont supported the budget as is.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol supports the budget but in a different way than Clairmont. While Clairmont supported the budget because it cleaned up some of his fiscal concerns, Krol supported it because he believes the city should be investing even more in education.

"I will be supporting this but I am not happy about it," Krol said.

Krol says the city should be putting even more money into the schools. The $1 million limit being sent after the contract negotiation put school officials in a "hamstrung" position, Krol said.

"My overall take is that yes, it is maintaining the schools but there isn't the time of investment that I know Dr. McCandless wanted to do," Krol said. "You are essentially, in the big picture, is asking them to make a cut."

He later added, "Those are fixed costs just to stay level funded. It makes it extremely challenging for a new superintendent."

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