At a time of uncertainty in education, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts public schools will receive level funding from the state for at least the beginning of the coming school year – with a bump to accommodate for inflation.
After months of anxiety – and the sending of over 140 pink slips to staffers, fearing cuts – Pittsfield won’t have to worry about state funding for its school department through October.
“The big news is that the commonwealth through its legislative branch and through the governor’s office has made commitments to communities across the state for both school funding and local aid, and I am very relieved to report that Pittsfield received level funded Chapter 70 money plus a bit more for inflation," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.
Chapter 70 is the program through which Massachusetts determines how to fund public schools.
“For our Chapter 70 school aid, the amount is $48,163,069,” Tyer told WAMC.
That amounts to almost 74% of the city’s $65 million line item for schools in the fiscal year 2021 budget. It matches 2020 funding with an increase of around $450,000 to reflect inflation. Governor Charlie Baker has signed off on an agreement with legislators to provide that level funding through the first three months of the school year.
“This certainly positions us to be able to rescind those reduction in force notices that were issued in the spring when we were in a positon – where we were really forced to do it," said Tyer. "So I’m sure the school administration is working on resolving that as we speak.”
“We’ve pulled back the vast majority of the layoff and non-renewal notices," said Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jake McCandless. “We have the original 24 that we brought forward in the budget are still out there, and we are sticking with those. However, almost every one of those positions, the people that fill those positions will be moving into positions that are vacated through retirements and other types of attrition.”
Compounding the challenges of the fall semester – from financial uncertainty to the logistics of planning a late, remote start to the year because of the pandemic – McCandless made his intentions to leave for the neighboring Mount Greylock School District clear this week.
“It’s really a family-based decision and letting me be the kind of leader that I want to be in a district where it’s perhaps just less bureaucratic in some ways than it is in the city of Pittsfield and more hands-on and personable,” he told WAMC.
Tyer said the superintendent’s departure is difficult news for Pittsfield.
“Dr. McCandless has been an extraordinary leader in our community, and losing him at a time when we have a lot of challenges in our city is obviously putting a certain added pressure on us," said Tyer. "However, we have a very strong administrative team in place, and I’m confident that we’ll be able to manage through this transition.”
The funding news comes with its own share of asterisks.
“Chapter 70 funding has been announced in such a way that it’s a resolution between both branches of the legislature and the administration, where we are saying that though we have a three month budget that we have passed, we have made a commitment to our cities and towns and school districts what Chapter 70 will be for the year," said State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier. "And we have made the commitment that it will be no less than FY20 funding.”
Farley-Bouvier says the legislature made the move to resolve state-wide uncertainty that led to cities like Pittsfield sending out rounds of layoff notices in the spring.
“The fact that we’re making this commitment without being certain of how we’re going to fund it – it’s a bit of leap of faith for us to do that,” she told WAMC.
While the state – which could see as much as a $6 billion drop in revenue due to COVID-19 – waits on the next round of federal relief money, Farley-Bouvier says hope rests on the Massachusetts economy rebounding and, possibly, new taxes on the wealthy.
“So this is a progressive legislator talking – so as a progressive myself, if I am faced with choice of cutting essential services and closing tax loopholes on the rich, I will close the tax loopholes on the rich,” said the state representative.
One would tax overseas funds held by commonwealth residents.
“We can close that loophole to be able to bring in different estimates between $100 million and $300 million in a year,” said Farley-Bouvier.
Massachusetts spent over $5 billion on Chapter 70 funding in the FY2020 budget, but that’s not the only way Farley-Bouvier says the state can further tax the wealthy.
“We had a package in the House that the Senate did not act on to have, for example, corporate minimum taxes, things like that," she said. "Josh, you have to remember that there are those who have made a great deal of money even the last five months. And those people should pay their fair share. And many of those are people who made money off the public dollar.”