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Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Warns Of Deep Budget Cuts

Jim Levulis

Pittsfield Public Schools’ superintendent is warning of deep cuts in the district’s upcoming budget including about a dozen layoffs.Superintendent Jason McCandless recently unveiled a $58.5 million budget plan for fiscal 2016. It’s a nearly $2 million or 3.5 percent increase from the current year, but not without painful moves to close what will be a $2 million shortfall.

“We’re going to have to see cuts all across the board to get to that $2 million,” McCandless said. “Unless the [Massachusetts] House of Representatives and Senate can create some magic and come in with a better budget than the one we’re sitting with right now, we’re going to see deep, deep cuts.”

McCandless says programs not involving the direct education of the district’s roughly 5,800 students, like those for adults in the community and early education, could see cuts. While he can’t pinpoint an exact number yet, he says there may be at least a dozen layoffs in non-educator roles among the district’s 1,200 employees. While enrollment has dropped by 700 students over the past decade, the percentage of those receiving free or reduced lunches has jumped from 40 percent of the student body to 65 percent. McCandless says those low-income families aren’t charged fees for things like playing a school sport or bus transportation if they live close enough to a school where the district isn’t required to provide it.

“If you’re a low-income family we don’t charge you,” McCandless said. “So where 10 years we might have brought in $50,000-$60,000 from that we’re lucky to make $10,000 now.”

Contractual obligations of $1.4 million and increases like energy cost hikes of $530,000, payments for a new fleet of buses and a $1 million special education tuition jump have come at the same time as state and federal funding losses. McCandless says preparation for upcoming voluntary testing known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, has cost roughly $150,000 in computers and materials, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff work hours.

“If we had known when we made the choice what it was going to entail we might have taken a little different direction,” McCandless said. “But if the state ultimately goes down the path of PARCC I think we’ll glad that we made this investment.”

McCandless says the computers and materials are and will continue to be used for more than just testing. The budget report also proposes four additional school counselors and training for behavioral support staff. Mayor Dan Bianchi, who is a member of the school committee, had asked McCandless to keep the budget under $58.6 million.

“The debt service on our capital budget is driving our budget up as well,” Bianchi said. “So we’re asking the taxpayer to really pick up the tab for improvements, for additional bus fleets, we’re making them aware of the increase in energy costs that not only the school department is facing, but we’re facing on our side as well.”

City Council President Melissa Mazzeo says she can’t see cutting the school budget any further than what’s proposed, adding that it could foreshadow the overall city budget.

“I’m looking at this year…I think departments are going to get hit and I think it’s going to be a tough budget,” Mazzeo said. “It’s not a good outlook.”

Meanwhile, the school district is currently applying for state and city funding for a new Taconic High School estimated at $115 million, an idea that has favor from the city council. The school committee has scheduled a budget meeting for March 25 followed by a public hearing April 8th.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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