The School Committee debated for four hours before voting majority to send the budget back to City Council with no changes.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee voted to send its $64.4 million education budget back to the City Council with no changes.
The vote was 4-3 Monday after a four-hour special meeting.
"I still believe that we have done our due diligence with this budget. We have looked at it, we have talked about the implications, and ... we have been agonizing over this," Chairwoman Katherine Yon said. "We are in uncharted waters but this is how we make it through."
Last week, the City Council had preliminarily approved the entire fiscal 2021 budget except for the $64.4 million school plan that they tossed back to the School Committee for another look. Councilors had expressed concern that the school budget was too tight.
School officials were adamant that the level-funded budget would serve their needs. They also preferred to pass a budget sooner than later allowing them to plan while avoiding a 1/12th budget scenario.
If the city cannot pass a spending plan before July 1 it would have to resort to a month-by-month budget -- a scenario school officials, the administration, and a majority of the City Council would like to avoid at all cost.
However, some councilors wanted to see more city funds added to the school budget. Most notably, Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon wanted to return some of the proposed 26 positional eliminations that school officials have said will result in very little actual loss of employment.
The vote was close and Mayor Linda Tyer, Yon, William Cameron, and Daniel Elias voted in favor of sending the budget back as is.
Committee members Alison McGee, Dennis Powell, and Mark Brazeau wanted to see changes and voted no.
Before a slew of votes, Cameron admitted he was unsure what the City Council wanted the School Committee to do.
"I think what we are being asked to do is make a commitment to want there to be more money but we don't have the power to print currency," he said. "We don't have any idea how much the state is contributing."
He wasn’t sure if the council wanted them to return to a level-service budget and add $1.4 million or return the 26 positions that would add just over $1 million to the budget. He also tossed out the number $5 million as an arbitrary increase.
He was sure that the city could not support any of these options and asked the mayor what the city would have to do to hit these numbers.
Tyer said they would have to go through all city departments and look for cuts. She said they would have to tap reserves and Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.
"It would be a jigsaw puzzle, but I can tell you that we would never be able to find $5 million," she said.
McCandless added that it is difficult to even discuss adding in these amounts without any Chapter 70 education aid information. He said a slight decrease in Chapter 70 funding would wipe out any increase.
"To take this out of the context of Chapter 70 is impossible ... we could add $750,000 in tonight and a 5 percent chapter 70 decrease undoes that plus some," he said.
Tyer addressed the $100,000 the City Council cut from the Police Department budget last week. She said she was not opposed to adding this back into the school budget but would rather wait until they have a sense of Chapter 70 funding.
She said the city has about a $350,000 excess levy capacity and anything else they can scrounge up and save needs to be put aside.
"I am not opposed to using that source of funding but at a time when we have a much better sense of what the state and federal government are going to do," Tyer said. "If we don't have to use it we are putting ourselves in a stronger position for next year."
She said this is also the case with free cash and reserves.
Brazeau was the first to make moves and motioned to return these positions, specifically the 14 teaching positions, 10 paraprofessional positions, a custodial position, and a guidance counselor position to the budget with $750,000 from the district's $1.5 million in CARES Act funding.
"I think we need to come together and do the right thing," he said. "This is what the community was looking for. We need to protect these positions."
The administration looked to hold onto this money for fiscal 2022 that is expected to be more difficult but Brazeau felt the $750,000 balance would be enough to weather the next fiscal year.
McCandless said if they were to bring on $750,000 worth of staff, they would also have to allocate for health benefits. This brings this amount closer to $1.5 million, nearly wiping out the grant they hoped to use to buy personal protective equipment to help them meet anticipated standards for reopening.
He was also concerned about recalling staff they may have to let go mid-year if Chapter 70 comes in low. He said this could cause legal issues if they promise employment then take it away.
"To do so now, when we don't know what Chapter 70 is, could create a legal entanglement down the road I don't think the school district wants to be in," he said. "We can't have people on payroll that we don't have the ability to pay."
Tyer added that this would create a structural deficit next fiscal year because this CARES Act money is a one-time funding source.
The vote failed with only Brazeau offering support.
McGee asked the committee to look at the positions separate from funding and to go through every single position on the chopping block again
"We have the council's support … they wanted to give us an opportunity to do something different," she said. "We may not be able to bring back everything but we can bring back some supports."
She said she would prefer to vote on each position individually and asked if the meeting could be extended to Wednesday for more consideration.
Yon said this would bring the City Council's vote beyond the fiscal year and that a decision had to be made tonight.
McGee then motioned that the School Committee "pare down" its list but this failed with only Brazeau and Dennis Powell joining her in support.
Brazeau then motioned to retain a school adjustment counselor, case workers, and the paraprofessionals. This would increase the budget $557,000.
This motion also failed with only Powell joining Brazeau in support.
McGee then motioned another combination of positions to keep equaling $515,000. This motion also failed.
Tyer came up with a compromise and motioned to request the administration to use $250,000 in CARES Act money to return the positions they deem most important
McCandless said they had the opportunity to do this and although he could name a few positions, he preferred to save the money.
"I don't think we are at the rainiest of days yet and I don't know what this gets us in the short term is worth it when we have so many unknowns," he said.
The City Council will vote on the entire budget June 29. If it rejects the plan, it will then vote on a 1/12 budget the next day.
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