PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council on Wednesday night sent the proposed $64.4 million school budget back to the School Committee.
The council tabled the education budget last week
after disagreements and technical difficulties. Some councilors felt the city could do more in the level-funded budget that eliminates 26 positions.
"There are still concerns that there are ... paraprofessionals and teacher who still won't be hired back," said Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon, who made the motion to send the budget back to the school committee. "I still do maintain that this is not a best-case scenario but a first-case scenario."
School officials say the budget they are presenting is preparation for more significant reductions. The amount of Chapter 70 education aid is the big question mark hovering over the fiscal 2021 budget and, depending on how much the school receives, these cuts could be deeper. If Chapter 70 comes in with just a 5 percent decrease, the district could be looking at the reduction of up to 140 employees.
Reduction in force notices have already been handed out as a precautionary measure.
The vote to refer back was 6-4 to four with Councilors at Large Peter Marchetti, Peter White and Earl Persip, and Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo voting in the negative. Ward 2 Councilor Keven Morandi abstained from the conversation.
This means the School Committee will have to reconsider the budget next week. Whatever school officials agree upon will go before the City Council on June 29.
This brings the city right up to the July 1 deadline to pass a budget. If the council cannot come to a conclusion on June 29, a meeting is scheduled June 30 to consider a 1/12th city budget. This will allow the city to function into July.
Wednesday night was the final scheduled budget hearing and the council preliminarily approved the city's side of the fiscal 2021 budget at $104,944,180.
Before the vote, Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio tried to form a motion that would levy $800,000 in free cash with the $100,000 that was cut from the Police Department budget on Monday night. He wanted this to go to the School Department to reinstate the 26 positions
Marchetti, council president, reminded him that the City Council cannot increase the budget, only the mayor can do so. Maffuccio then asked Mayor Linda Tyer if she would be willing to use free cash to restore these positions.
Tyer reiterated that she felt it was premature to dip into free cash and pledged to revisit the entire budget if Chapter 70 came in under the fiscal 2020 levels.
"I agree with every person who has spoken in favor of strong public schools and I want our schools to be properly funded," she said. "How we get there between now and the fall will be multifaceted and before we can build a solid plan to fund are schools ... we need to know how much Chapter 70 money is coming to Pittsfield."
The state Legislature is reworking its spending plan for fiscal 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic blew a hole in what had been shaping up as a flush budget with extra funding targeted toward schools. Estimates are that Massachusetts is facing a shortfall between $5 billion and $6 billion in revenues.
Superintendent of Schools Jason McCandless reiterated that these 26 positions do not translate to 26 people actually losing their jobs. He said only two or three people would lose their jobs but rather positions would go unfilled.
Persip asked McCandless if returning these positions would be a priority if the city handed over the $800,000.
The superintedent replied that they are not priorities and that any extra money would only return a handful of them (specifically some of the elementary school positions and an adjustment counselor). He said some of the posts had been planned for elimination prior to the pandemic.
He added that the eliminations include around 10 paraprofessionals. The number of paraprofessionals fluctuates depending on student needs. If a student needed the one-on-one support, the funds would be found to bring an additional paraprofessional back.
Persip also asked about the $1.5 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money the district has and if it could be used to bring back these positions.
McCandless said they could but their real needs lie elsewhere.
"If we felt this budget would be brought to a halt or that children or an individual child would be ill-served by making this round of cuts, we would look at that $1.5 million to fill that gap," he said.
Rather, he said, the department is looking to use those funds in fiscal 2022, which likely will be a more challenging year.
But in reality, a portion of this money will be used to supply personal protective equipment and fund other measures to reopen in the fall. If the schools reopen in the fall in some form.
Financial Director Matthew Kerwood added that tapping this amount from free cash could send the entire budget into a tailspin.
"You have just given us an unbalanced budget which means I have to go back and make $800,000 cuts somewhere else to get a balanced budget," Kerwood said. "If you alter those numbers, you put us out of balance and we will have no excess levy capacity and be on the wrong side of that."
Moon led the charge for reconsideration. After hearing from parents and teachers concerned about the cuts, she felt it was important to consider returning even a few of these positions
Some councilors felt there was time for the School Committee to take one more look.
This was not the preference of school officials, who felt the budget they put forward was proficient. Although thankful for the councilors' desire to support the schools, they urged them to pass the budget so they have a framework in place.
"We brought forth a budget we believed would serve our children and this notion that a level-funded budget eviscerates programs and opportunities for children, I don't believe that to be true," McCandless said. "Delaying this will add difficulty on top of stress and I encourage you to support this budget."
There was also the fear of inching closer to a 1/12th budget that McCandless said would make it harder to plan ahead and recall teachers who have been served a notice. He said teachers will look elsewhere if there is even more uncertainty around the budget.
Maffuccio noted many communities in the commonwealth have gone to a 1/12th budget and he was uncomfortable passing a full budget with so many unknowns. He wanted to know why the mayor did not consider this.
Tyer said she preferred to get some sort of framework in place and felt that a 1/12th budget would create more difficulties on both the school side and the city side of the budget
"We felt that we wanted to get a budget in place to allow all of the departments some confidence to move forward in their operation," she said.
Kerwood said typically towns have gone with a 1/12th budget and it simply does not work as well for cities that have to be able to plan ahead. He guaranteed that with a 1/12th budget, the city would say goodbye to the 26 positions the school has proposed cutting.
He added that forcing both the school and the city to budget month to month and not be able to plan ahead would cost more positions.
"We would turn this into a chaotic situation," he said. "How can they plan to open up in September working month to month? They just can't do it."
Tyer added that passing the level-funded budget really safeguards the 140 positions that potentially could be cut.
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke urged the council to pass the budget. She said they have to begin informing teachers of their assignments in August.
"I can't begin to tell you the level of uncertainty that would bring to the schools," she said. "We have a lot of challenges right now ... that would make things more difficult and it would be helpful to have a framework."
Persip and White said they both supported the budget. Persip expected the School Committee would just send back the same budget and White was very fearful of losing teachers.
The education budget took up the bulk of the lengthy meeting but the City Council also addressed other departmental budgets including Public Services, Finance and Administration, Enterprise Funds, workers compensation, and unclassified accounts.
The council spent the most time talking about the unclassified account's budget of $53,306,376 that increased 1.8 percent or $931,384.
Maffuccio asked to reduce health insurance by $325,000. This is the increase over the fiscal 2020 budget of $26,750,000.
His thought was with the anticipated surplus of around $1 million in the account he did not think the city had to budget an increase.
Kerwood explained that these numbers come from a simple calculation applying premiums to the number of employees on health insurance. Although an estimate, he said health insurance numbers always fluctuate.
"That is a dangerous game for me to play ... it is going to fluctuate," he said ."It is a dangerous game to play around with health insurance ... this is a contract to provide health insurance to our employees."
He said if they under budget, the money has to come from somewhere else.
The motion failed 3-8 only gaining support from Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, Morandi, and Maffuccio. The council then passed the budget.
As an aside, Marchetti said he was inclined to make a motion to cut the health insurance line item by $50,000 — the amount that is spent on City Council health insurance.
"I can't force city councilors to take that but I hear a lot of discussions here that we should be leaders and we should take the charge," he said.
He said he planned to submit a home rule petition that would eliminate health insurance for elected officials who make less than $15,000 a year.
Moon did not like the idea and did not want to kick anyone off of their health insurance. She said it may discourage people from running for office.
Connell, who said he uses city insurance, said he took Marchetti's petition as threat and thought he should check with the city solicitor
"I think that is a bold threat ... to even threaten," he said. "I don't have a family, yes, I am on it just myself but there are people in here that have families and I think you need to really consider that
The big-ticket item of the night was the Department of Public Services and Public Utilities budget of $8,076,388 that is all but level with a $143 increase over fiscal 2020.
The Department of Public services personnel budget of $2,188,388 increased by $69,817, or 3.3 percent.
The expenses budget of $5,888,000 is down 1.2 percent or $69,674.
The City Council approved this budget with little discussion.
The water budget of $5,472,703 is up 1.3 percent or $72,072 and. Morandi did motion to reduce professional services by $25,000 but this overwhelmingly failed with a 2-9 vote only gaining support from Connell and Morandi.
The council then passed the budget.
The sewer budget of $816,802 increased 71.9 percent or $341,657 and the Wastewater budget of $6,741,794 increased 2.1 percent or $136,173.
The council approved these budgets.
The level Finance and Administration budget of $1,223,576 also passed after a failed motion by Connell to reduce the budget by $30,551 to eliminate a buyer position.
The council approved the Enterprise Fund total of $13,031,299. This increased to $5,99,902 or 4.8 percent. They also passed the level Workers Compensation budget of $650,000.
The also approved the use of $182,000 for parking related expenditures.