PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Pittsfield school system is particularly a big winner in this year's state budget.
The fiscal 2020 spending plan includes a $5 million increase for the Pittsfield Public Schools over last year. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier called it a "down payment" for significant increases to come in the next few years.
"This $5 million over last year is part of a much bigger, multiyear debate and effort to fund out underfunded schools," Farley-Bouvier said. "This is a, I consider, a down payment on probably the seven-year process of significantly increasing Chapter 70."
The issue started with a Foundation Budget Review Commission finding that the way the state proportions funds for schools was lacking in four key areas: health insurance, English language learners, special education, and economically disadvantaged students.
"The funding formula has never been updated to reflect those," Farley-Bouvier said.
The health insurance increases have outpaced what was designed in the 1993 formula and its 2007 update, it takes more resources for a school to educate a child who has to learn on English on top of all of the other work, and special education costs more. Farley-Bouvier said those in the State House have come to a consensus as to how those figures should be rightly portioned.
There is still a question as to how to recognize costs associated with districts with a high density of economically disadvantaged students, Farley-Bouvier said.
"Their lives tend to be more chaotic. They don't have the resources at home. They are not being sent to summer camp or necessarily being read to every night. It could be food insecure. There are a lot of reasons for that," Farley-Bouvier said.
When a class has a greater population of low-income students, Farley-Bouvier said the resources needed to teach them grows "exponentially" and how to quantify that is still under consideration.
"Every district could get extra funding for each of their economically disadvantaged students but in a district where there is a high density, each of those children costs more. A poor student in Pittsfield costs more to educate than a poor student in Newton. Why? Because a third-grade class in Newton, maybe there are two kids who are economically disadvantaged. In a poor classroom in Pittsfield, there could be 25 out of 28 kids. That density makes it more difficult," she said.
In September, the debate will begin as to where all of those figures need to be, how to calculate them, and then determine a period of time to get state support to those figures. However, revenues were good this year so the state got a jumpstart on those efforts by increasing the Chapter 70 budget with an eye toward addressing the increased needs of students from low-income households.
"For Pittsfield, this is where we have been dramatically underfunded for years, which is why you will see a great change in Chapter 70 over years because of that," Farley-Bouvier said.
The city has approved a spending plan built on earlier numbers, which were raised significantly by the end of the state's budget process. The state budget was released three weeks into the fiscal year. The city built and approved a budget based on an expected $3.4 million increase and used $500,000 of that to recognize increases in insurance and gave the School Department a $2.9 million increase in its budget.
"I think it is a problem that it is as late as this, especially because the new number is so different. But it's a good problem to have in Pittsfield," Farley-Bouvier said.
The representative said she expects the city to pass a supplemental budget or find some other way to put the rest of the funds toward the schools.
"Every dime of that money needs to be spent on the School Department, every dime of it," Farley-Bouvier said. "There has to be some kind of process to do that and however the mayor and the City Council decide to do that, I'm open-minded to that."
Another logistical problem is that class sizes and schedules have already been determined. Farley-Bouvier recognizes that at this point it may be difficult to hire more teachers for one grade to reduce class sizes but she said there are plenty of "wraparound services" that are needed such as mental health counselors or new after-school programs.
She has confidence that the city can hire for those services and expects them to continue in the future as the state's support is anticipated to increase.
"Nobody can guarantee anything but I would advise the City Council, School Committee, and superintendent to hire with confidence," Farley-Bouvier said.
The state budget also includes $75,000 for a feasibility study for the city to explore becoming an internet service provider. The idea would be to build out a municipal internet system and offer it to subscribers, as has been done in Westfield with Whip City Fiber.
"We can't just plunge in and start buying cable. This is the first step, doing a feasibility study. What will it take for us do it?" Farley-Bouvier said.
She said Westfield prioritized building a network by neighborhoods based on the percentage of people in the neighborhood who expressed interest in joining. Westfield took out an initial bond to hire, purchase equipment, and install the system with expectations to pay it off with subscriber fees in 30 years but is on pace to pay that off in 22 years instead.
"The costs are significantly lower for the consumer, by two-thirds to half, and people are reporting that the service is so much better," Farley-Bouvier said. "We just feel we need to take matters into our own hands."
She also secured $26,000 to create handicapped accessible paths and benches at Wild Acres Conservation Area. She said those are the type of projects cities have difficulty finding resources to pay for and a state earmark helps move that along.
"The more we can make what I call our treasures in the Berkshires available to everybody, it is just better for all of us," Farley-Bouvier said.
The Pittsfield Democrat said it is one step toward helping improve the local outdoor recreation economy. She recently took a trip to Stowe, Vt., and said that town is far ahead when it comes to making sure the infrastructure is in place to truly capitalize on recreation. The Wild Acres project is one little piece toward helping the city be better in that direction.
"I really do believe that we have not reached our full potential when it comes to outdoor recreation tourism and I want to do everything I can to support that," Farley-Bouvier said.
She also secured $34,000 to make handicapped accessibility improvement at the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Other highlights for Farley-Bouvier include expansion of the Youth Works program, which is run through MassHire. That program pays the salaries for young people who take summer jobs. MassHire works with employers to find positions.
"As the money shrunk, they shrunk their footprint in Pittsfield. Now they are going to be able to expand a little bit more, especially in North Adams. But I really believe in that first job, when kids have that first job, that first experience," Farley-Bouvier said.
The budget also includes $125,000 in assistance toward shelters in the Berkshires to house the homeless during the winter. That has been a routine allocation but continues to be one that isn't routinely budgeted.
"That money should be baked into the budget but the governor has not re-bid the shelters," Farley-Bouvier said.
The budget also includes money to continue the work of the Berkshire Educational Task Force and she said she was supportive of state Sen. Adam Hinds' request for a pilot of the Berkshire Flyer passenger train from New York.
Overall, Farley-Bouvier said there weren't any disappointments with the budget this year.
"I kept looking for them and I didn't find them," she said.
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Hancock Shaker Village Opening For Baby Animals, Outdoor Spaces
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Hancock Shaker Village will hold a limited opening on Thursday, June 4, as part of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's Phase 1 initiative.
The Village will open only its outdoor spaces — including its beloved baby animals in outdoor fenced-in areas — to the public Thursdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. This schedule will be in place at least through June, as the Village plans for a full reopening in Phase 3.
Leaders of the iconic living history museum have been working for weeks on a reopening plan with new measures in place to ensure the safety of visitors and staff. Such health and safety measures include online and timed ticketing, guest capacity limits, one-way paths to control guest flow, clearly designated distance markers ranging from 6 to 10 feet, enhanced cleaning protocols, more hand sanitizer stations, and COVID-19 training for all staff.
Visitors will be required to pre-purchase timed admissions, available online at hancockshakervillage.org or by phone at 413-443-0188. Members are always free, but must reserve a time slot prior to their visit. Guests and staff are required to wear face coverings.
"The health and safety of our community remains our top priority," Director Jennifer Trainer Thompson said. "With guidance from Governor Baker, we are looking forward to once again welcoming visitors and continuing our mission of connecting people to the Village and the stories of the Shakers."
The museum has been offering virtual programs such as a stream on YouTube of a dance performance by Reggie Wilson and Fist and Heel Performance Group in the Round Stone Barn and virtual talks with authors and Shaker collectors. The Village also expanded its social media presence, offering programs such as Facebook livestreams from the farm and popular Zoom with Baby Animals sessions. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Village also made the decision to plant its 5-acre vegetable garden, which supports a 65-member CSA and provides 15 percent of its crops to local families in need.
"We know people have been eager to visit the farm when it is safe to do so," Thompson said. “Self-guided discovery has always been important to the museum experience here, and with baby animals, the trails, the architecture, and the gorgeous gardens, we’ll offer what has always been a hallmark of the Village: an inspiring, holistic experience."
The donation, which was made in honor of all BHS employees and medical staff, will be designated to support two major programs that provide reliable access to healthy food for residents of Berkshire County. click for more
Any other year, the graduates of Berkshire Community College and their friends and families would be filling The Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox.
But instead of taking the stage, speakers stood alone in front of a backdrop. And instead of being handed their certificates and diplomas, the more than... click for more