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Pittsfield Teachers Demonstrate Against Budget, Staffing Cuts

A row of people in red shirts with signs stand in a park
Josh Landes
Teachers in Park Square Monday afternoon

Teachers from around Berkshire County demonstrated against budget cuts in Pittsfield, Massachusetts Monday afternoon.

Hundreds of sign-carrying teachers, students, and their supporters gathered downtown at Park Square to decry proposed staffing cuts in the $65.5 million 2021 school department budget.

“Funding is essential to maintain proper education for the students," said Alex Lomaglio, the Massachusetts Teachers Association representative for most Berkshire County school districts. “We’re calling on all legislators of all levels – federal, state and local – to properly fund education and avoid the massive cuts that are being discussed, proposed, and actually voted on as we speak.”

Pittsfield is deliberating the school budget, which was tabled after a long and contentious debate at its allotted hearing last week. The city council will take it up again Wednesday night.

The Pittsfield Public Schools announced this month that it could not promise jobs to at least 140 of its employees since next year’s state funding for public education remains uncertain. The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation said in May that the state could expect to collect as much as $6 billion less in tax revenue this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Today is the day that non-renewal letters go out to all the educators," said Lomaglio. "So they’re receiving those letters today that they don’t have a job for next year. And 140 people in Pittsfield is just way, way, way too much.”

The 140 number is a worst-case scenario for the city and its over 1,500 school department employees. The proposed budget’s best-case scenario – level funding for 2021 – would still see 26 jobs lost, 11 in special ed.

“Now more than ever, students need small class sizes," said Mary Holmes, a phys ed teacher at Conte Community School and Capeless Elementary in Pittsfield. “I got a non-renewal notice, and my worry is that if we don’t have enough physical education teachers, the class sizes will be too big, or they’ll not be able to have physical education at all – which is really important to prevent chronic disease and teach student social-emotional skills.”

Next to her, Sarah Smith – an art teacher at Conte Community School – carried a sign that said “Support Pittsfield Students.”

“To remind myself and other people that this isn’t just about the teachers and our jobs but it’s about our students and providing them the stability and consistency that a lot of them really, really need – especially right now,” she explained.

Between the unique challenges of the pandemic and existing issues, Smith says teachers play an outsize role in students’ lives.

“A lot of our students have very high needs due to trauma, whether it’s through neglect, abuse, or poverty related, all sorts of issues that they have," Smith told WAMC. "There’s definitely a big fear that if 150 teachers are cut – or at our school, even if 10 people are lost – then there are 10 stable, supportive adults in those students lives that are just gone, like that – and I’m very concerned about how that will affect them.”

She also got a non-renewal notice.

“It felt really bad,” she laughed. “I’m a first-year teacher, and obviously art teacher jobs are hard to come by, so I really, really love what I do and really want to stay where I am. Especially with the students that I have. It’s very scary to imagine losing them and them losing us as well because I know a lot of them have grown very attached. And also a fear that they’ll lose art all together.”

A similar rally was held simultaneously in North Adams.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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