PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Superintendent Jason McCandless is scaling back his budget request by about a half-million dollars.
McCandless said he had a meeting with Mayor Linda Tyer and Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood since revealing his initial request for a $3.4 million increase to the budget and the three agreed to a lesser number. Particularly, McCandless said the number of new positions, mostly new paraprofessionals, is being scaled back.
"The number of new employees will be between 14 and 20. It will not be in the upper 20s or low 30s like it was last time," McCandless said.
Tyer said she had a couple of particular concerns with the superintendent's original request. She said the city's health insurance costs are rising, and 62 percent of that is attributed to school employees, and that there is still uncertainty in exactly how much the city will get from the state.
"I think this sets the stage for providing some very needed interventions for kids that need it the most but also balances out the health insurance cost and the uncertainty of the chapter 70 formula," Tyer said.
In Gov. Charlie Baker's budget, the city was poised to see a $3.7 million increase. The House of Representative's Ways and Means Committee is proposing even more. But, there is a strong push from school districts in the eastern part of the state asking for money to be allocated specifically for English language learners. The city's large increase was driven a lot by special education and economically disadvantaged population while only having a small population of English language learners. Should the funds be shifted, the city could see lesser funding than expected.
"I have some anxiety about what ultimately is going to be the final number," Tyer said.
McCandless added that many of the suburban districts that are not seeing an increase in state aid are lobbying the legislature to allocate more to them.
Tyer said she did want to preserve increases for special education, expanding early literacy programs, and increasing the technical programs at Taconic High School. That served as the basis in how the new number was crafted.
As for health insurance, the mayor said the city's premium is $25 million. It is increasing by $1 million. McCandless said part of the Massachusetts Foundation Budget Review Commission's findings, which led to the push for increased state funding for schools, is for health insurance. The commission believes that state support for education has accurately reflected the costs districts incur for health insurance, special education, economically disadvantaged students, and English language learners.
"This notion of leaving money on the table for the city ... we're actually honoring what the Foundation Budget Review Commission wanted to do," McCandless said.
School Committee member and former Superintendent William Cameron believes the biggest shortfall in state funding over the years has been related to health insurance. He said offsetting those costs is keeping staff, which in turn, helps the students.
"It hasn't taken into account the staggering increases that have happened in the last 25 years in health insurance," he said.
McCandless added that not only does the health insurance fall on the city's side of the ledger but that the city is also responsible for maintaining the school buildings. He said he believes it is fair that the city gets a portion of the increased state aid.
School Committee member Cynthia Taylor disagrees. She said the schools are asked to do so much with limited resources. She believes the increased state aid should all go directly toward direct services for the students.
"It bothers me that we are leaving money on the table from our budget," she said.
Taylor added that it appears that the city will see even more than the $3.7 million increase the governor proposed.
The superintendent said that exactly how the district gets to that $2.9 million increase from the original $3.4 million requested increase is still in flux. He said such things as hiring fewer new paraprofessionals and certified nursing assistants to help school nurses are being scaled back.
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