Ava Mungin got roaring applause for her comments in defense of the work the paraprofessionals do for the students.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ava Mungin is who children come to when they need help.
When they are hungry, they go to Mungin. When they are sick, they go to Mungin. When they want to get off drugs, they go to Mungin.
"I've given them hope I've given them a sense of self-worth and confidence.I do this every day," Mungin said.
She is a special education paraprofessional at Pittsfield High School and most recently she's been working with a student who can't speak, but is able to walk and use crosswalks because of Mungin.
She takes on the role that many teachers are unable to do because of other responsibilities. The paras are some of the lowest paid employees in the district and some of the most flexible when it comes to scheduling and job roles.
"It seems like everything goes down, we are always the one to get hit and things are taken from us. We don't understand why. We don't know why. We are doing the best. We are the ones being more flexible, you are here today, you are there today, you aren't doing this, you are not doing that, you aren't taking a break right now can you hold off?" Mungin said. "We bend over backward so many times."
The proposed school budget calls for the elimination of 39.2 full-time equivalent paraprofessionals districtwide, positions doing the type of work Mungin has been doing for years because she loves it.
"The proposed cuts to the paraprofessional staff are not only demoralizing, they will be harmful to our current students and future generations," said paraprofessional Sandra Amburn.
Amburn said the job of paraprofessionals has changed and adapted while the needs of children have grown. She says the paraprofessionals are "essential" parts of the workforce.
Those comments were submitted to the School Committee on Wednesday night during the public hearing on the proposed budget. The department has a draft budget that calls for level appropriation from the city, and that in turn had led to the proposal to cut 73.5 total FTE jobs. More details about the budget can be found here.
More than 100 people showed up to the hearing opposing the cuts, but less than a dozen issued comments.
Superintendent Jason McCandless has presented the proposed budget multiple times and the School Committee is expected to vote on it later this month. He said so far it looks like because of attrition, only 10 of the 29 teaching jobs being eliminated are actual layoffs — the other positions are being reduced through retirements or leaving the district voluntarily and not being replaced. He'll be looking to do the same with the paraprofessionals too.
Overall, he says at least 60 percent of the reductions this year will be jobs in which people left and the district decided not to rehire.
On Wednesday, he said that even with the cuts there are still some 230 paraprofessionals being employed in the district.
"The notion that we are eliminating a whole cadre of positions is just not so," McCandless said.
School Committee member Pamela Farron understands the situation. She said paraprofessionals "do the dirty work. I don't know how you can do your job without them." But, at the same time, a classroom can't be legally run without a teacher. Choosing between the two is difficult. She has been asking for help from the state but to no avail.
"We are working our tails off and there is no easy answer. There just is no easy answer and we are making decisions we don't like. Next year, it will get worse. We are going to be looking at consolidating schools, we are at that point," Farron said.
McCandless also refuted what Amburn said drove the budget — the switch from the GIC to Blue Cross Blue Shield for health insurance. Amburn said the city fell for a lure from Blue Cross with lower rates for the first two years but for the third year, there was no set rate. The health insurance costs came in for this year with a 12 percent increase, or $3 million for the entire city.
"The city did this despite the objection of most of the employees," Amburn said, saying the rates presented then were "teaser rates" intended to get the city into a contract.
"Three million dollars in health insurance costs, which is the result of a decision forced up us by City Hall, has caused the Pittsfield School Department to propose the cuts to staff and services."
McCandless said, "insurance goes up $2.5-to-$3 million a year no matter who you go with." But yet, the increase is still a major driver of the budget. The city is approaching its levy ceiling, which means it can't raise much more from taxes. The city only had $3.3 million of new money entering the budget season and the health insurance premiums are going to take up $3 million of that.
Mayor Linda Tyer said she was frustrated with the open-ended third year of that contract. That came to fruition under Mayor Daniel Bianchi through negotiations with a collaborative of public employees from all areas of the city.
There are other factors bringing the city closer to the levy ceiling. There are contractual raises for employees throughout the district. Negotiations with the police and fire unions are ongoing. And Eversource is seeking a large increase in electric bills.
"If we thought we could cut heating and save a single paraprofessional job, we would cut heating and save a single paraprofessional job," McCandless said. "We are simply trying to do what we know we need to do."
Matthew Gigliotti, a former student, said this year's budget is yet another year of cuts to education. He said the city needs to place education as the keystone for the development of the city.
"The council and School Committee have been really good at cutting things and really good at complaining about what was, what wasn't, and what could have been," he said. "This budget does not send a message to young families looking at Pittsfield for what direction Pittsfield is going. It sends the wrong message."
At this point, the School Committee and administration are honing in on details ahead of a budget approval that needs to be decided on April 26.
Many advocates filled the PHS library on Wednesday in opposition to the proposed budget reductions.
For example, United Educators of Pittsfield disagrees with a $500,000 allocation to revamp curriculum, saying cutting some of that could save jobs. Resident Scott Eldridge voiced concern on the same thing saying, "$200,000 less is four teachers."
Farron said she, too, believes that could be reduced and would like to see the return of stipends for the special education chairs, who "take care of the unbelievable amount of paperwork." She said those chairs hold the system together.
"I know what it was like to teach a subject with no materials. It was hell. I know they are needed but I would like to look at making that a little less," Farron said.
McCandless said he is currently taking that under consideration. Others questioned the specific positions that were added to the staffing picture. School Committee members Daniel Elias and Joshua Cutler said he's advocating to keep the attendance coordinator to keep students from dropping out.
Now matter what, though, McCandless said the plan is just that a plan. He said a budget is not "the 10 commandments." It is the "best guess in how you are going to get through the next fiscal year." The exact expenditures could change depending on needs as the year unfolds.
"If there were right answers for this, I think collectively we would have found them," McCandless said.
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