|Residents Protest Proposed Pittsfield School Budget Cuts|
|By Joe Durwin, Pittsfield Correspondent|
06:21AM / Sunday, June 10, 2012
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — More than 150 students, parents, school personnel and members of the community spoke out on Wednesday against a variety of proposed cuts in the School Department's most recently revised budget.
School officials initially requested a budget that called for $54.5 million dollars in city funding but at their May 30 meeting, Mayor Daniel Bianchi asked for a $53.5 budget as part of the overall $132.9 million municipal budget he will put before the City Council.
The gap in the budget needs is primarily the result of the absence of a million in federal stimulus that was incorporated in the 2012 Pittsfield school budget as a one-time only funding source.
The School Committee had Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein propose a revised budget proposal with the additional $1 million in cuts. Eberwein said the revised budget would result in several key losses: computer programming at Pittsfield High School, reductions of Latin classes throughout the district and various personnel losses including elementary teachers and high school guidance secretaries.
"I was appalled and angry that the carefully crafted budget presented by the superintendent was discarded by this board with little apparent thought or consideration," said PHS chemistry teacher Scott Eldridge. "Discarded when one member of the board demanded deeper cuts because the city won't support the budget as presented ... It is your responsibility to make sure that Pittsfield has the best possible schools. If you approve these budget cuts, you will have failed to perform your duty."
Reid Middle School Vice Principal Dennis Carr addressed the need for deans of students in the schools saying it had been an integral part of the improvements seen at Reid - from higher test scores to lower disciplinary rates, exemplified by its designation this week as a New England Spotlight School.
"We have worked too long and too hard to see everything we have done go down the tubes and that is exactly what would happen without a dean of students in our building," said Carr. "It is not possible to equate the North Junior High School of the 1960s and '70s with the complexities of running a middle school in the year 2012, and not having our dean of students simply cannot be discussed as an option for us."
Gayle Yates, of the United Educators of Pittsfield, said the proposed budget sets schools up to fail.
"How are we as a district to remain competitive and attract choice candidates when these proposed cuts will increase class sizes, undermine morale, show Pittsfield as an unstable work environment for potential job candidates, and slash programs that help us compete with neighboring districts for Choice funds?" she asked.
Elizabeth Baer, a Latin teacher at both Taconic High School and Reid, was one of several Latin teachers, as well as students and residents, who spoke in favor of maintaining the current level of Latin education.
"I do know we are facing really difficult financial challenges, loss of federal stimulus money, I get all that. I also know that, according to the latest year for which these numbers are available from the Department of Revenue, Pittsfield is below the state average in the percentage of local revenue that goes to schools," Baer said.
Janice Barry spoke on behalf of the high school guidance department in asking the committee to reconsider cutting one of its record secretaries; the department has employed two for more than thirty years. Barry, flanked by about a dozen PHS seniors in graduation gowns who stood in support said cutting even one of these positions "would have an immediate negative impact" on students.
"Accurate record keeping is imperative to our students, and absolutely vital to the college application process, as well as to our alumni," Barry said.
A group of Taconic students also came forward to speak against a similar cut to their school's guidance department.
Eric Lamoureaux, school and community coordinator at Crosby Elementary School, sympathized with the mayor's need to balance educational expenses with other municipal expenses and services.
"It is my belief that Pittsfield schools are the lynchpin among the links in the chain of municipal services. I believe the strength and success of the school system will be a deciding factor when new and or existing industries look to expand or locate in Pittsfield," he said.
Lamoureaux opined that if the "gap" between the two budgets could not be closed, it would have a demonstrably negative effect on Crosby, which would lose at least 5 full time staff members.
School Committee member Terry Kinnas said the comments from the public had helped to clarify some aspects of the impact of the cuts in the superintendent's revised budget, which he said remained opaque in the information he'd received.
"The clarification on what's going on here seems a little diluted," said Kinnas. "I think the whole budget process itself needs to be re-examined totally, where we take a close look not only at the cuts but any additions to the budget, on their impact on the kids and where their future goes."
Bianchi said there seemed to be many misconceptions and "rumors" surrounding the budget discussion, including the idea that the city is cutting the overall school budget, or that he or other School Committee members had made any specific recommendations to the superintendent on where to make cuts.
The mayor said the figure he has proposed for schools is a $1 million increase over last year, as part of an overall municipal budget that he expects will increase the city tax burden by about 2 1/2 percent.
"We have had difficult times, and we have a commitment to balance our budget, both our municipal budget and our school department budget, in a reasonable way," said Bianchi. "Last year, the city contributed $1 million from free cash to balance the budget, and I'm proposing upping that to $1.6 million, and we still have to struggle ... This is a difficult thing, and we've got until the end of the month to resolve these issues, and I'm confident that we will."
The School Committee will further convene to discuss the budget at special meeting 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 12, and is expected to adopt a budget the following Wednesday for review by the City Council on Thursday, June 14. The City Council must approve a budget for the 2013 fiscal year by June 30.