North Adams is preparing for budget cuts of 10 to 15 percent, with the worst-case scenario closing a school.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Educators and supporters in the county's two cities rallied on Monday for more educational funding even as school officials prepare for budget scenarios that could cost dozens of teaching positions and school closures.
"We want our students and our families to know that we are supporting them. And we're doing this for them," said Lisa Tanner, a math and science teacher at Colegrove Park Elementary School. "We want our state and federal legislators to know that we can't do our job if they don't do their job and come up with a way to fund us."
Tanner and her co-president of the North Adams Teachers Association, Michelle Darling, were among dozens of teachers, parents and staff holding signs at the four corners at Main Street and Marshall. Behind them were rows of pictures of recent Drury High graduates, vehicles driving by honked in support.
"Everybody here today cares," Darling said. "They want the best for the students."
Darling, a special education teacher at Drury High School, said the uncertainty for students has been exacerbated by the novele coronavirus pandemic that forced the closure of school buildings in mid-March. It's pushed students and teachers into a remote learning system and highlighted the need for more technology, more training and more access to the devices children and educators need.
In Pittsfield, a hundred or so teachers, school staff, and education supporters were spread out around Park Square.
Andrew Bourdan, a special education teacher, said with the proposed cuts to the Pittsfield school budget, his position will be one of those eliminated.
"With the level funding, my position was eliminated so I want to get my position back," he said. "I decided to come out here to get the message out."
He said the state and federal government need to come through with money if they want something that even resembles school in the fall.
"We need to be funded if they want smaller classes in the fall you have to pay your teachers and you have to have the funding in place," he said. "Otherwise you are not going to have the guidelines that are in place if the school were to be part time in the fall."
Pittsfield teacher Mary Hynes-Vrumm said these past few months have been challenging for families and educators and was hoping with proper funding there could be a return to normalcy.
"I think the kids have been terrific and really positive about participating as much as they can and I think this is really hard on families," she said. "When you are a working parent and you also have to be the teacher. I think we have done the best we can."
The Massachusetts Teachers Association has for several years been an advocate in the "Fund Our Future" movement, a call for the state to restore some $2 billion annually for public schools and colleges. That calls has only been partially answered through such acts as the Student Opportunity Act (which is only investing $1.7 billion over seven years) and Rural School Aid grant program championed by state Sen. Adam Hinds.
Neither will solve shortfalls expected in Chapter 70 education aid as the state grapples with revenues reductions pegged at $5 billion because of the novel coronavirus. Education leaders are pushing for more federal funding on par with the $100 billion provided for in the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed in the Great Recession. in contrast, the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside $13.2 billion.
With the uncertainty in state funding, the North Adams school system is preparing for a 10 percent cut but also has made plans for closing an elementary school as a worst-case scenario. Pittsfield's school system is presenting a level funded budget but is hedging its bets by issuing 140 notices reduction in force notices.
Simon Brown, a former Pittsfield educator who now teaches in Brooklyn, said he was at the rally to support the arts and questioned the Pittsfield Police Department's budget. A number of citizens are raising concerns over the department's increased spending in light of recent national events and cuts to education.
"I saw the effectiveness of arts education and you don't need a militarized police force when you have kids who are making art," he said. "Defund the police, maybe not all right now, but come up with a plan and sell the tank."
Teacher Ann Manns thought the federal government should properly fund the states. She did say she felt supported by the Pittsfield City Council that tabled the education budget vote last week when it split on a decision.
"I feel like the council is being very supportive right now," she said. "They wouldn't even vote on the budget last week because they wanted to wait."
Supporters at the North Adams rally were being encouraged to call and write to their state and federal lawmakers.
"It's all going to boil down to is our federal government listening? Are our state legislators listening? Are they taking heed to what we're really wanting to do?" said Tanner. "This is not about the teachers. Not at all. No teacher in North Adams Public Schools is getting a raise this year. This is for our students. We want them to be successful. We want them to have equitable learning."
North Adams' School Committee last week endorsed a resolution to state and federal legislators asking for action at the federal level.
"We're actually trying to get a resolution for Chapter 70 to hold us harmless, so that we can use that money for what we need that money for," said Tanner. "We're working on that actively."
Protesters in Pittsfield hold a sign for 'Fund Our Future,' a campaign to increase state monies for public schools and colleges. Advocates say the state has been underfunding education to the tune of $2 billion a year.
North Adams School Committee member Tara Jacobs last week had pushed for the committee to also develop a resolution for the Legislature ensure funding.
"I am horrified that we have to be having these kinds of discussions that increasingly worse," she said, holding a sign at the rally with her daughter, a student in the school system. "I mean 10 percent I actually think is pretty bad but now they get increasingly devastating to our community. ... They recommended two billion more dollars per year for education just to be properly funded -- for years. They started to address it with the Student Opportunity Act, which they rolled back right. Even in that model, North Adams was only getting $40,000, not enough not adequately bring us up to equity."
Her larger concern is that cuts will fall most heavily on programs that serve children's social and emotional needs, extracurricular activities and arts and music.
"It's just outrageous the priorities. I appreciate we did the resolution on the federal level, but the state needs to fund this appropriately," she said. "I'm upset by how much the state doesn't prioritize education. ... Coming out of this pandemic, they are putting us in a position where we have to make these kinds of choices that harm our kids. So I ... upset isn't even the word."
On Monday night, the North Adams School Committee was going to review another budget scenario and the Pittsfield City Council was going to take up the public school budget again.
"Public education has been underfunded for a very long time and they just keep putting a Band-Aid over us," Darling said. "That's how I feel.
"And now it just feels like the Band-Aid's getting ripped off and the kids are going lose again."
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A tropical storm heading north up the Atlantic coast could bring more rain to the Berkshires over the weekend.
Dubbed "Fay," the storm began as a tropical depression off the coast of North Carolina midweek and formed late Thursday.
According to Accuweather, the storm has sustained winds of 60 mph and could bring 2 to 4 inches of rain over Western Mass and Southern Vermont from late Friday through Saturday morning.
"Fay will make landfall along the New Jersey coast during Friday afternoon," AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Lead Hurricane Expert Dan Kottlowski said. "Fay will be a mostly heavy rain producer but could still bring wind gusts of 50-60 mph along coastal areas of eastern Long Island and over southern coastal areas of New England."