PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council on Thursday tabled the Pittsfield Public Schools fiscal 2021 budget of $64,493,70 at the conclusion of a four-hour-plus hearing after some technical difficulties brought the meeting to a grinding halt.
The council was split on the level school budget that works with the assumption that Chapter 70 education will at least come in flat. Half of the council felt the entire city budget needed to be reconsidered to mitigate the $1.4 million cuts in the district budget while the other half wanted to pass it and possibly make changes after the city had a better sense of state aid.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon made the motion to send the budget back to the School Committee and found support from Councilors Kevin Morandi, at-Large Yuki Cohen, Patrick Kavey and Anthony Maffuccio.
Councilors Earl Persip, Peter White, Dina Lampiasi, Peter Marchetti, and Nicholas Caccamo voted no.
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, who had difficulties communicating throughout the meeting, was the tie-breaking vote. However, when the vote was to be taken, he was completely cut out of the meeting.
The vote failed with a tie and the council was unable to vote again on the matter. Although Connell tried to rejoin the meeting, his audio was still not clear.
After waiting a time for Connell to rejoin the meeting by other means, Maffuccio motioned to table the budget. This passed 7-3 with White, Persip, and Caccamo in opposition.
Well before this vote, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless went through the budget and said an effort was made to balance staff reductions with the reduction of "stuff," placing priority in the classroom.
"I urge you to pass this budget, prolonging the process will not bring clarity it will not bring solutions out of thin air," he said. "Not passing this budget will take away from time and effort we need to put forward for planning for next year and ... the advocacy that we should be directing toward our state and federal officials."
In this budget scenario, there are 26 positions on the chopping block. Fourteen of these are teaching positions and 11 will be regular education. This breaks down further into two high school teachers, two elementary specialists, two teachers of deportment, one caseworker, four elementary teachers, and three elementary interventionists who will be redeployed within their buildings.
The spending plan also eliminates 10 paraprofessional positions, one school adjustment counselor, a district curriculum position, one custodial position, and one nurse position.
These reductions have mostly been made through attritions and unfilled positions so there would be minimal loss of actual jobs.
"You will see that there is loss but there is no job loss for individual educators," McCandless said. "This budget relies on attrition and the reduction of things not the separation of people from their passion and their profession."
Moreover, McCandless said they planned to make many of these reductions prior to the pandemic because they were no longer needed or needed to be adjusted.
The budget also includes a $551,000 decrease in non-salary expenses. The bulk of this comes from a $400,000 reduction to the curriculum line.
But much of this is still guesswork and the actual amount of Chapter 70 the district will receive has yet to be announced.
"It is Chapter 70 that will make or break this budget," McCandless said.
This means cuts could be deeper and McCandless said the district is handing out 140 nonrenewal and reduction of force notices as preparation for a worst-case scenario. This is a legal obligation.
He reiterated that this is only being prepared and that the district does not plan to eliminate 140 employees.
McCandless then outlined three more tiers of cuts representing levels of reductions and said if state aid decreases 1.9 percent, they will have to make up another $914,000. These cuts would include more staffing cuts but primarily would rely on more reductions to material line items.
If Chapter 70 dips down 2.7 percent, that's another $1.3 million cut. This would mean more loss of jobs and people transferring to different positions. Administrators, teachers, and some paraprofessionals would be affected.
The last "nuclear" tier represents a 5 to 10 percent reduction in Chapter 70 meaning the district would have to cut nearly $5 million and follow through with all 140 nonrenewal and RIF notices.
"These cuts ... include deep, deep, deep administrative cuts," he said. "Deep to the point where I am concerned about our ability to actually run the district and our schools ... it would be a heart-breaking day for us all during a time when we would need educators more than ever."
McCandless said there is little the city can do to add funding to the budget and that officials need to continue to put pressure on the state and federal government to properly fund education during and after the pandemic. He noted that the majority of the district's budget is reliant on Chapter 70 and any cuts there will be felt harder by less affluent communities like Pittsfield.
Some City Council members felt differently and Moon said she thought instead of relying on the state, the city should step in and break into free cash.
"We keep saving cash for a rainy day," Moon said. "Well I can't think of a rainier day when our kids are at the most risk and need as much support as they possibly can."
Moon double downed later in the meeting, saying it was the City Council's job to look at the budget as a whole.
"I believe personally that our job is a moral obligation to the residents of Pittsfield. The budget is what we say is our priorities," she said. "We are tasked with taking the school committee budget ... and figuring out how that fits into the bigger picture of Pittsfield."
Specifically, she brought up the Police Department's budget that has proposed increases and felt it was important to take a look at everything in the city budget.
She added that she was very hesitant to eliminate the positions laid out in the budget and morally had difficulties cutting positions that work with the most vulnerable students.
Councilors Maffuccio and Morandi agreed and said they would not support the budget as is.
"It just seems like it is not fair and yes we need city services but we also need our schools," Morandi said. "I don't feel the city is doing their part ... there should have been much more thought on the city side."
McCandless was asked if he thought the budget was workable as is and he said although there is always a need for more, that this budget will do.
"This is a budget that we would have not brought forward if we did not think it was adequate...we felt like this was adequate to do what we need to do," he said. "We will do whatever we are told to do but this budget is adequate but it is not a single step beyond adequate."
Persip said the School Committee unanimously supported the budget and although agreed with injecting some free cash into the district if needed, he thought it was too early to do so.
"There is so much unknown and I think we should save the emergency funds because the emergency could get bigger," he said.
Director of Finance Matthew Kerwood agreed and said it was a little premature to tap free cash with still so much uncertainty.
He said they can make changes to the budget anytime before the tax rate is set so if the state comes in with good news, they will be able to increase the budget. Conversely, with bad news they can certainly consider using some free cash to supplement the budget.
McCandless said he will come back before the council if he believes more money is required. He also spoke to a $1.5 million in federal money on hand for education that they would like to save to help weather the likely upcoming financial crisis after the pandemic.
Mayor Linda Tyer said if the state comes back with greatly reduced Chapter 70 amounts, the entire city budget will be reshuffled.
"If we are looking at a catastrophic reduction to Chapter 70, it is my intention to put every element of this budget back on the table for a complete review," Tyer said. "I do not expect the School Department to bear the burden of that magnitude of cuts on their own."
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon thanked the councilors for wanting to do more but asked them all to rally around the current budget for the time being.
"I think we need to unite around this framework ... I understand your desire to vote no but I think at this point it's just important for us to move forwards to see where we are going to go," Yon said.
During the course of the four-hour meeting, the councilors asked other questions of the administration. Morandi advocated for salary freezes and Moon asked McCandless if the administration has asked staff to freeze salaries as they have done in the past.
McCandless said they did this in 2017, saving four teaching positions, but it left a lot of hard feelings that are palpable to this day.
"The amount of hurt feelings, angst and remaining anger from that unit that remains in the air is not worth going back to the bargaining units," he said.
He said he would only consider this if the union came to him offering the freeze.
Morandi asked if the administration considered closing a school and McCandless said school closures are considered every year. An elementary school could be closed this year but the savings would not outweigh the public anguish that closing a school in such short notice would create.
As for extracurriculars, McCandless responded that they have made reductions, many because of the inaction of the programs during the pandemic. But he added, like closing a school, the savings would not outweigh the community loss.
He added that he could foresee many students leaving the district if they were to eliminate arts or sports.
Getting into the actual budget, Assistant Superintendent for Business & Finance Kristen Behnke explained that many of the increases are contractual, needed technological upgrades, or represent structural changes in the budget.
The biggest change is in the instructional budget of $49,849,658 that decreased to $406,799.
In this section, the salary budget of $47,009,114 is up $147,467. Expenses are a bit more drastic and the $2,220,544 budget is down $554,266.
Other School Services, including nurses and bus operations, increased $202,788 to $3,645,177. The $2,798,877 budget is up $234,771 but the expenses budget of $846,300 is down $31,983.
The operations and maintenance budget of $5,955,499 increased by $188,040. The salaries section of the budget ($2,891,912) increased $112,539. Expenses are up $75,501 totalling $3,063,587.
The administration budget of $1,609,771 only increased $6,322. The salary line item of $1,176,517 is up $15,684. The expenses budget of $433,254 is down just over $9,000.
Fixed costs only increased $8,231 totaling $317,235
Adult learning stayed level at $68,074 as did acquisition of fixed assets ($97,682), and tuition payments ($3,570,604).