Superintendent Jason McCandless outlines his plan on Tuesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — City Council approved a spending plan for the nearly $1.3 million Chapter 70 increase that will improve the district's alternative school and fill staffing gaps.
City Council unanimously approved a spending plan layout Tuesday that will provide the school district with a $1,285,600 shot in the arm — pumping resources in both the elementary and middle schools.
"We know that this money was directly and specifically aimed at communities that need it the most," Superintendent Jason McCandless said. "I can assure you ... many of our neighbors did not see this increase because they do not face the same challenges that we do in Pittsfield."
Earlier this year the City Council approved a budget based on a $3.7 million increase in the state's Chapter 70 school aid. However, the final version of the state budget upped this increase to $5 million.
McCandless outlined the same spending plan the School Committee approved Monday night. He noted that the fiscal 2019 Chapter 70 amount was $42,665,381 and the fiscal 2020 amount was $47,686,062.
But with this unexpected increase, the district is now looking at $5,020,661 in chapter 70.
The plan focuses on the elementary and middle schools as well as the Education Opportunities for Students alternative school — which will be moved to Eagle Street.
All in all a $1,012,000 chunk of this increase will go towards 19 new hires that will add grade levels in the elementary schools, provide direct support to students and teachers, and help administer the alternative school programming.
Another $75,000 will be used to bring in an autism consultant to help improve the district's programming and another $273,600 will go to the city to cover health insurance costs associated with the added positions.
The council first asked McCandless if he thought this funding bump was a permanent fixture and McCandless responded that he was confident that this increase represents a new baseline.
He said he would not propose hiring anybody if he did not think the funding would be consistent. He said if this was the case the district would likely have to let these new hires go the following year if this funding did not return.
McCandless did warn that if the city did not put these extra funds toward education with the spirit of the increase, he did not think the state would support this new Chapter 70 trajectory in the coming years.
"If we use this money correctly this year when it is coming the message this telegraphs to the state is we mean business," he said. "We are putting this money where they intended us to put this money ... and this is a down payment."
And the council did not propose using this increase for anything else but education. Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said the city has to continue to support education.
"Part of the deal we have to do our part and that has been said many times," he said. "I think it is worth repeating. New influxes of dollars for the schools should not be used for other parts of the budget."
Although the council was in support of the plan, it did have questions specifically around the EOS school. While Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo came right out in support of the move, Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon had questions about it and asked if separating high needs students from the larger student body was a best practice.
McCandless said it is a best practice contrary to that of the 1970s when high-needs students were kept in the classroom. He said by separating these students, it gives them the right environment to thrive as well as provide specific support and resources.
"It is a different place that serves a very different set of needs," he said. "What often happens there are certain disabilities and certain patterns of behavior that in a setting with 20 other people that become your community you don't have the audience that you have in the middle school with 600 other students."
Councilor at Large Earl Persip asked how these new positions and additions, specifically at the EOS, will help the larger student body.
McCandless said it comes down to time and not only will these at-risk students get the attention they need but it will free up administrators, resources and councilors who are often tied up with the students who need the most help.
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell asked if the district looked at using a city-owned building for the alternative school instead of renting and McCandless said they are open to it but for the time being it makes more sense to lease.
Many of the prospective buildings need a lot of costly work, he said, and there is also a bonus to having a landlord. If something goes wrong, school funds do not need to be tapped to address it.
Persip asked if the district would be able to make these hires before the opening of school in early September and McCandless said they may not fill all of the positions on time but will do what they can.
"We are going to do what we have done all summer we are going to try like heck and we will have these positions posted tomorrow," he said. "We will put our shoulder down and push hard."
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