Meeting for the first time in five weeks Tuesday night, the Pittsfield City Council voted to accept almost $1.3 million in additional state money for the city’s school department.
Historic state spending on public education – determined through its Chapter 70 program – has brought a windfall to Berkshire County’s largest community. Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless addressed the council.
“In Fiscal ’19, the amount of Chapter 70 we received was just over $42.5 million. In Fiscal ’20, thanks to our legislature, thanks to all of you, thanks to school districts and advocates all across the state, we are seeing really what looks like an unprecedented increase.”
In fiscal year 2020 – which began on July 1st – that amount spiked to over $47.6 million.
“This is a down payment for six or seven years of increases to catch the commonwealth's schools up to where the times have gone but the state’s funding mechanism has not gone.”
McCandless itemized the areas where a bipartisan group on Beacon Hill found the state lagging.
“The cost of educating special needs students, the cost of educating English language learners, the cost of educating economically disadvantaged students.”
The fourth zone was rising health insurance costs, which the superintendent said sometimes went up as much as 15% a year.
Pittsfield’s city and school budget for the year had initially been based on the governor’s budget, with an increase of something closer to $3.7 million. The school department had requested almost $2.9 million of that.
“We’re back here tonight to request the difference between what we assumed the Chapter 70 picture would look like, and what it actually is, this $47,600,000.”
Hence, the department’s request for the newly available almost $1.3 million – which McCandless framed as a one-shot opportunity for the city. Bolstering Pittsfield’s alternative education is at the center of how the schools intend to use it.
“Our plan that we bring before you tonight provides a new space for the middle school EOS tier 3 program, moving it from Herberg to spaces newly available on Eagle Street. We do include personnel additions that allow us to have better onsite leadership – full-time onsite leadership – and provide for taking six to 10 additional high school students into the high school program that already is at Eagle Street.”
EOS stands for “Educational Options for Students,” and the tiered system attached to it reflects the intervention need level expressed by individual students. The third tier is the highest and smallest level.
“Almost across the board when we’re talking about tier 3 students, we’re not talking about one type of intervention, we’re talking about social, emotional, behavioral, sometimes health and wellness and medical, and all the time, academic interventions.”
Fifteen to 20 middle schoolers would enter the proposed expanded program.
“We think that alternative education – it’s not a place to warehouse kids, it’s a different type of learning environment with specialized services with students who need different types of educational experiences to succeed.”
Asked about the racial makeup of the city’s alternative education program by Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon, McCandless said it reflects Pittsfield’s broader community, and is not disproportionately weighted with students of color – a concern of the councilor’s.
The plan also calls for the establishment of two Restorative Justice intervention centers.
“One at each middle school, staffed by people with the title Teachers of Deportment, which is exactly what it sounds like. These people help students deport themselves, understand what they did, who they hurt, and what they’re going to do about it to make it right and what they’re going to do next time to avoid that hurt.”
It also allows for common planning time and support for the city’s eight elementary schools, and the hiring of a “much needed” interventionalist at the Stearns and Capeless schools. It would also call for the hiring of two new teachers at the third and fourth grade level
“And then finally we’re asking for $75,000 is the amount we’ve dedicated to bring in a consultant or a team of consultants to work with us around better serving students who fall on the autistic spectrum.”
The final number of new hires in the revised budget totals 19 staff members. McCandless says it’s unlikely that all will be hired by the school year’s start. After the plan was unanimously passed, the superintendent told WAMC that the school department felt “very good” for its 5,500 students and 1,200 employees.
“Step one is to do some fast and furious advertising and hiring. A lot of conversations with families and with staff members and just continue. We feel like we’re running full speed to get ready for September 3rd when kids come back, but we need to kick it up a gear or two and run it at even fuller speed to be ready to execute this plan. But it’s a wonderful problem to have.”