Community members weighed in on a budget that would mean $3 million in cuts, including 74 positions, at a Pittsfield Public Schools Committee hearing last night.
Ava Mungin has been a Pittsfield High School paraprofessional for 18 years. She’s known as Miss Ava at school.
Her job could be one of the 39 paraprofessionals – out of the 74 total full-time staff members including teachers and district workers – who are on the chopping block.
“The kids come to us when the teachers are not available. We are in places where the teachers are not. We hear things, we see things. The kids are looking for us to save them. I know I am one ticket that the kids are always looking up to. They come to me for solutions. They come to me when they are sick. They come to me when they are hungry. They come to me when they want to get off drugs, when they don’t want to drink, when they are being beat – all sorts of things,” Mungin says.
The Pittsfield Public Schools Committee says it needs to cut $3 million for next year’s budget because of the rising cost of health insurance and the city’s levy limit. And so, Superintendent Jason McCandless says jobs need to be cut.
“Our primary focus is not to save jobs, our primary focus is to serve children,” McCandless says.
The City of Pittsfield will soon be unable to generate any more revenue from taxes under the required 2.5 percent levy limit set by state law. There is no override vote available to change that. At the same time, the city’s health insurance costs have increased by $3 million.
Matthew Gigliotti, who was involved with the School Committee when he was a student in the early 2000s, says Pittsfield needs to once again put education at the helm of its economic development.
“But the question about where the city is headed is being called again. And great progress has been made. But tremendous — but there needs to be that next push, and this levy issue presents a great opportunity in fact to explore where the school department fits into that discussion.”
The city can’t shuffle around too much money because of employee pay raises, pension obligations, and the possibility that Eversource might raise electric rates.
"It's not about the money at all, or else a lot of us would not be here. It's definitely not that. The community needs us, the parents need us,” Mungin says.
As the overall enrollment for the district has dropped about 2,000 students in a decade, the number of special education students has risen.
“I have kids that can barely even communicate with me. But I communicate with them. I teach them to communicate when they can’t speak. I wipe them and clean them when they can’t do it themselves. I have taught children how to go to the bathroom. I have toilet trained them. I have toilet trained grown-ups, teenagers. I have given them hope. I have given them a sense of self-worth, self-image and confidence,” Mungin says.
The current budget plan is for the district to receive level funding, just more than $60 million.
Some additional costs the school system faces are a $200,000 increase for out-of-district placement for special education services, and hiring a high school vice principal. But, says McCandless:
“A budget is not the 10 Commandments; it is not carved into stone,” McCandless says.
Some programs might not have to be cut completely. Pre-Kindergarten, which the public school is not required to have by law, could be reduced from four to two classes.
There also might be a way to save some jobs. McCandless says many of the targeted positions might be saved through attrition and workers taking an early retirement. He also foresees some staff moving to part-time, or hiring additional paraprofessionals as needed throughout next year.
$500,000 is allocated to purchase materials for curriculum. It’s estimated that $200,000 less spent there could save four teaching positions.
“Please take in consideration that we have lives too, and these kids need us. It's working. Ask them,” Mungin says.
The school budget will be adopted on April 26th. Mayor Linda Tyer says she and other administrators plan to go to Boston on May 2nd to confront state leaders about Pittsfield’s city budget crisis.
City leaders are concerned that next year’s budget season could be a lot worse for the school if something is not done on the state level.