The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council has accepted a $170 million budget for fiscal year 2021.
The city’s spending plan ultimately came in $100,000 less than its initial proposal – money cut from the police department at the June 15th budget hearing.
The final vote on the much-debated fiscal year 2021 financial strategy came Thursday night, after city administrators and councilors once again argued over how to fund Pittsfield’s public schools.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon has been an outspoken critic of the proposed level-funded $65.5 million budget and its $1.4 million in cuts from fiscal year 2020 that would leave 26 positions unfilled in the coming year. She said she was disappointed that the school committee returned the budget back to the council unchanged after it was rejected by city legislators, and that the cuts would hit the city’s neediest students the hardest.
“I would have liked to have seen the $100,000 that was cut from the police budget to go the school department budget at least, and the response that I heard was that, well, we have to save that for if we get less than for the Chapter 70 funding,” said Moon.
With Massachusetts expected to see a multi-billion dollar revenue loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, uncertainty has clouded how much funding public schools can expect in the coming fiscal year. Last year, more than 70% of Pittsfield’s school department budget was funded by state aid.
“It did not make sense to me because there was money that was allocated to a different department that didn’t exist until it was cut from the police department budget, so I am a little confused at the hesitation on shifting those dollars over," continued Moon. "And if we are very concerned about what Chapter 70 funding is going to look like for the schools, then I think that we should wait until we see what Chapter 70 is for the schools.”
By some estimates, that information could come as late as September. Pittsfield faced a June 30th deadline to set its budget for fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1st. Failure to pass a budget would have forced the city to adopt a monthly or 1/12th budget for at least three months – something the school department and city administration were staunchly opposed to.
“We really believe that – and I say this as a superintendent that has never worked under a 1/12th budget – but we really believe that our planning, our ability to let people know that they are back and they are secure in their employment, our ability to schedule elementary schools let alone the high school scheduling which is very complex, is really going to be hampered by being on a 1/12th scenario because we will only have a full assurance of our elected city council that we have one month’s ability to pay these folks in front of us,” Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless.
The school department initially issued at least 140 pink slips to its over 1,500 employees this month in preparation for a worst-case scenario in state funding.
Mayor Linda Tyer explained her opposition to drawing on the city’s over $8 million in reserves.
“I’ve been very clear from the beginning that it is important for us to maintain our reserves, to maintain our excess levy to the best of our ability," she told the council. "And if we find ourselves in a predicament where we have a shortfall in Chapter 70 money, we will come back to the city council with a proposed plan to cover that shortfall. I’m not prepared to do any additional funding of the school budget at this time, but you have my commitment that if there is a shortfall in Chapter 70, we will cover it.”
The final 8-3 vote saw Councilors Moon, Christopher Connell, and Kevin Morandi in opposition to the budget.