At a long and inconclusive city council meeting, the civic leaders of Pittsfield, Massachusetts debated the school committee’s proposed budget for 2021.
The $65.5 million school committee-approved budget was presented by Superintendent Jake McCandless, who explained that the level-funded budget includes job cuts made by attrition.
“As you will see the budget before you tonight does indeed have reductions," said the superintendent. "A level-funded budget has to account for the money we are obliged by contract to spend and to do the things that we must do. To reach level, we had to account for $1.4 million. You will see this tonight in how we account for that. You will see that there is loss, but there is little to no job loss for individual educators, included paraprofessionals.”
The city has 12 schools and over 5,000 students – a number that has dropped continually for the past 20 years.
Last year, the city relied on almost 80% of its school department funding from Massachusetts.
As presented by McCandless, the budget was prepared with multiple tiers of potential cuts in state aid the city is bracing for amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These cuts in tiers two, three, and four include deep, deep, deep administrative cuts," he said. "Deep to the point where I am concerned about our ability to actually run the district and run our schools.”
The school department notified over 140 members of its 1,565 person staff this week that in a worst case scenario, they will not have jobs this fall.
Ward 1 city councilor Helen Moon spearheaded criticism of the budget, taking issue with the fact that the city itself was only losing 2 jobs to attrition, compared to the schools’ 26 in what McCandless framed as the best-case scenario budget.
Moon referenced a WAMC interview with Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn to underscore Mayor Linda Tyer’s administration’s priorities with cuts.
“When I listen to an interview today with Police Chief Wynn and he said he was told not to cut any positions even though we can’t fill the 99 positions that were appropriated for, I have to question what that means for the entire budget," said Moon. "I have to think about what does that mean for our school committee budget.”
11 of the 26 positions eliminated are in the special ed department.
She said the cuts presented by the school committee represent the kind of systemic issues that current national conversations are attempting to address, and rejected it as a best-case scenario.
“The positions that we are potentially going to cut if we approve this budget are going to impact our most at-risk students," said Moon. "Those are the special ed teachers. Those are the kids that the three months of not being at school is going to leave them even further behind. I cannot stress that enough. And yes, it is through attrition, and yes, people are retiring, but in any other year, we would be trying to re-fill those positions because those positions are valuable to the success of our students.”
Other councilors joined Moon in calling for the city to draw from its $8 million in rainy day funds to support the schools.
Mayor Tyer interjected in an attempt to support the passage of the proposed budget.
“If we are looking at a catastrophic reduction to our Chapter 70 money, it is my intention to put every element of this budget back on the table for a complete review,” she said.
Toward the end of the almost four and half hour long meeting, Moon moved to send the budget back to the school committee. Joined by Councilors Patrick Kavey, Kevin Morandi, Anthony Maffuccio, and Yuki Cohen, her measure was one vote away from passing. But when the final tiebreaking vote came down to Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell – who had voiced his opposition to the budget earlier in the meeting – his persistent issues with internet connectivity caught up with him, and he dropped out at the most critical moment. The movement failed at a 5-5 impasse, and the budget was ultimately tabled. At-Large Councilor and Council President Peter Marchetti tells WAMC that it is likely to be added to the June 17th budget hearing. He says there is currently no plan in place to address Connell’s tech issues. The next budget meeting, scheduled for Monday, concerns Pittsfield’s Police, Fire, and Emergency Management departments.