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Superintendent Jason McCandless gives a lengthy presentation to the School Committee on Wednesday night to introduce his proposed budget.

McCandless Asks 5.7 Percent Increase for Pittsfield Schools

By Andy McKeeveriBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Superintendent Jason McCandless is asking for a $3.4 million increase to the school's budget for fiscal 2020.
 
The large 5.7 percent increase comes as Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed a budget that gives the city $3.7 million more in Chapter 70 education aid for schools. The request comes with a number of new initiatives and positions that McCandless said will bolster specific areas the district has identified as problematic.
 
"This represents a budget that actually we are able to put money into things, into programs, into people, that will benefit preschools all the way through 12th-graders and CTE," McCandless said.
 
The plan looks to add seven special education instruction and accountability coordinators, one at each middle school and five for the elementary schools, who will serve as family liaisons and as quality control for individualized education plans including goal setting and assessments, relieving teachers of paperwork and "bureaucratic work" to give the them more time for planning, preparation, and teaching, serving as guidance, monitoring effectiveness of accommodations and specialized instructions, chairing team meetings, and ensuring all compliance deadlines are met.
 
These roles are something the district piloted this year and felt has been working. Specifically, the move is one of many to reassess how the district teaches special education.
 
McCandless said the data shows the school district is not achieving growth among special education students. Further, he believes it has been overidentifying students as needing special education and putting them on plans that do not work. The superintendent said while the overall enrollment since 2014 has dropped by 7 percent, the percentage of students in special education increased by 16 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of special education students statewide grew by only 4 percent in that timeframe.
 
"None of this is to say that we don't have an amazing group of special educators here ... It does say that structurally something is amiss," McCandless said.
 
The superintendent said the special education demographic to grow the most is "specific learning disabilities," which is a catchall for students who may not have a specific diagnosis but for whom parents, doctors, or teachers have requested individualize education plans.
 
"It is sometimes a tag we put on students when we don't know what else to say. We know they aren't making growth but we don't know what it is so we put them on an IEP," McCandless said.
 
That leads to students being on plans that may be incorrectly targeted, pulls resources from other places, and hasn't shown to be effective. The new positions are eyed to be an oversight and to bring focus to moving children out of special-needs classes and back into the regular class. McCandless said the issue of progress isn't so much in special education but rather in general education.
 
In the last year, the schools launched three new programs eyed to specifically help students in special education: Read 180, System 44, and Math 180. McCandless said in Read 180, 59 percent of the students met the end-of-the-year goals by mid-year and seven of 119 students graduated back into traditional classrooms. Similar figures were shown in Math 180 and System 44.
 
He wants to increase those programs to help move the stagnant achievement numbers shown in special education and is asking for an additional Read 180 teacher for Taconic High School. He also wants to add four academic interventionists for reading at the elementary school level as well as an intervention teacher and a teacher of deportment to the therapeutic program at Crosby Elementary School.  
 
McCandless wants to help the elementary school teachers be better as well. The teachers are currently monitoring recess and lunches while asking for time to be more collaborative and for planning. McCandless is asking for 14 new paraprofessionals, two for each school, to take over those duties to give teachers that time. He said there will be accountability measures in place to make sure the teachers are using that time in that way.
 
"Our elementary school teachers are desperate for common planning time," McCandless said.
 
The superintendent is also looking to significantly bolster the new Taconic. McCandless said enrollment at the brand-new high school is already up more than 100 compared to the last year and requests are coming in. He wants to add new career technical programs and a new math teacher. The new programs include electrical, horticulture, early education and care, and autobody. He is asking for four new teachers for those programs and $30,000 for supplies.
 
The enrollment changes are also showing an increase in English language learners. McCandless is asking to add two of those teachers. Also to address a changing demographic, McCandless is looking to bolster the cultural competency line by $50,000. The district has a cultural competency coach in Shirley Egerton but she hasn't had a budget before.
 
McCandless said the city and the state has a massive problem when it comes to having a teaching staff that adequately reflects the student population. In Pittsfield there are 463 full-time equivalent teaching positions but only 12.8 are Hispanic, 14.8 were black or African American, and nine were multiracial. The remaining 426.4 were white.
 
That is much more reflective than where the district was in 2012 when there were only three Hispanic teachers, 12 black or African America, and the 465 were white and it puts Pittsfield toward the top of the lists of total minority teachers and percentage.
 
But yet, the McCandless said 30 percent of the population is of color. 
 
"Our teaching core does not reflect the demographics of our learning core," McCandless said.
 
The increase in funding will help grow the city's cultural competency program, increase recruitment efforts, and build curriculum.
 
The budget also includes two nurses, one at Conte and one at Taconic, because a grant that had funded those positions expired. 
 
"The grant is going away but we still must have the nurses for the good of our children," McCandless said.
 
Meanwhile, it is looking to bring on two certified nursing assistants to help in the busiest nursing offices. They would help with intake and paper because McCandless said the school nurses aren't overwhelmed with the nursing aspect of the job but the bureaucracy involved is time-consuming. 
 
He said a pilot under the Title 1 grant for assistant principals of teaching and learning, jobs focused on working with the teachers and curriculum rather than administrative aspects, for Reid and Herberg proved to be successful and he'd like to budget to keep those two jobs in place.
 
The superintendent is asking for two paraprofessionals to staff middle school intervention centers as well as bring in a consultant to focus solely on bolstering the district's restorative practices when it comes to discipline. The district has been implementing a new code of conduct and bringing in more restorative ways to handle discipline and McCandless believes these additions would significantly boost those efforts.
 
"We know this is a big price tag but we think this work is very, very important," McCandless said.
 
McCandless is also looking for some $250,000, which he envisions will be a reoccurring item, on school safety measures. He said the money would be spent on training and building adjustments to safeguard the schools. He said the communications have routinely been shown in school tragedies to be a massive difference maker. 
 
When the district looked to layoff close to 70 staff members a few years, McCandless had pushed a request for $500,000 to completely review and revamp the district's outdated curriculum. Ultimately, the teachers' union voted to temporarily forego raises to save some jobs and McCandless had returned the gesture by backing off that ask by $250,000. With more state funds aimed at helping the schools, McCandless is now back to asking for the other $250,000.
 
Those new initiatives are on top of $931,587 of contractual obligations, an expected $425,000 increase in special education tuition, and a $60,000 increase in natural gas.
 
McCandless said money is directed for schools as part of the effort to follow the Foundation Review Commission's recommendations, which is set to become a top issue on Beacon Hill this year.
 
Those recommendations claim that the state has for years underestimated the cost to education special education students, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are learning English, and health insurance. 
 
The governor's proposal significantly bolsters the Chapter 70 for school aid program and McCandless believes the money should be directed at the students. He believes that the state will likely put in accountability measures to make sure it does.
 
"I think the state is going to require that we illustrate that this money followed kids and in some cases followed specific kids," McCandless said.
 
Mayor Linda Tyer, however, was much more reserved about McCandless's $63.9 million questions, saying she is worried that the city could be in trouble if the state doesn't want to fund at this level in the future.
 
"My concern is that if our governor and legislature does not honor this agreement in years going ahead, what do we do if next year is not this amount?" Tyer said.
 
McCandless said the district has shown in recent years that it can make cuts to bring costs down. 
 
"Then we will have a year of kids getting exactly what they need and that is better than no year of kids getting exactly what they need," McCandless said in response.
 
He believes that this budget will set a floor so the state won't come in with less in future years - but he also doesn't expect a big increase of $3.7 million each year.
 
The budget process has just begun. The School Committee will later work on the budget before it goes to the City Council. Between the state's numbers being still very much in flux as both branches of the legislature are taking up that budget and multiple reviews of the Pittsfield School budget, much is to come.
 
But to kick it all off, McCandless is asking for a big increase is willing, as his two-hour presentation on Wednesday night shows, that he's willing to defend the request.
 
"This budget reflects asking the school committee to dig in and fight, whether it is locally or at the state level, to do what we need to do for kids," McCandless said.

Tags: fiscal 2020,   pittsfield schools,   pittsfield_budget,   school budget,   

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