Proposed Pittsfield school budget would expand pre-kindergarten to all elementary schools | Local News

PITTSFIELD — All Pittsfield elementary schools would offer full-day pre-kindergarten under a proposed budget presented Wednesday. The plan seeks to close achievement gaps and provide mental and academic supports during the COVID-19 recovery.

The proposal comes after a year of financial uncertainty for school districts across the country. The district intends to use millions of federal coronavirus grant dollars to hire 22 staff to help students and educators deal with pandemic impacts over the next two years.

A preliminary spending plan proposed by Gov. Charlie Baker would increase the district’s state education funding by $1,170,548, though Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said the increase could end up as high as $4 million when state leaders finalize the budget.

Outside of the state funding, Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis requests $2,768,000 million more in city funds for the coming fiscal year than the current year, for a fiscal 2022 budget that amounts to $67,261,700. That’s a more than 4 percent increase over this year. The plan next faces a line-by-line review and public hearing. The School Committee will issue its budget recommendations in April; the budget must win City Council approval.

Curtis said that educators worked to support students over the past year, but data crunched by the district says resources came up short. “Both academically and emotionally, our students will need additional resources to recover from almost a year of remote learning,” said Curtis.

Last year, the pandemic dashed hopes for a multi-million increase in state education funding. Behnke said the district received a more modest $477,000 bump. Despite a request by the City Council to increase local education spending for this fiscal year, the School Committee last June held firm and level-funded it.

Contractual obligations typically account for the largest budget increase. The district expects to spend $1,600,000 more on step raises and salary increases next fiscal year, said Behnke.

The budget proposes spending $720,000 to hire four teachers, 10 paraprofessionals, two specialists and four bus monitors to expand the district’s pre-K offerings into all elementary schools.

These new positions would fulfill a years-long aspiration to establish pre-K classrooms in each elementary school, said Curtis, an effort that started with pre-K offerings in the community schools. Dean of Students Jennifer Stokes said the classrooms would be inclusive of children with different learning needs.

Multiple studies show enrolling children in pre-K increases their chance of academic attainment as they grow, said Curtis. He indicated the classrooms are one piece of how the district intends to respond to recent data that showed Black and latinx/Hispanic students in grades 3-10 scored lower on English language arts benchmarks than other students. Curtis called that “concerning, to say the least.”

“We do not have all the answers currently, but we are seeking solutions to bring equity,” said Curtis. “Offering prekindergarten will provide early access to high quality educational experiences for students that sometimes experience barriers in access.”

The data, however, did not explain why or how Black and latinx/Hispanic students are being systematically left to fall behind their peers.

Mayor Linda Tyer called the pre-K proposal “a bold move” that would benefit students and families, but asked for a breakdown of how it would affect healthcare costs, which are shouldered by the city.

The proposed budget restores positions cut in last year’s budget, including one teacher each at Crosby, Williams and Conte, as well as an academic interventionist at Egremont. It adds an assistant principal of teaching and learning at Conte, for an overall increase in personnel costs of $338,000 for elementary literacy and enrollment.

The proposal increases the career, technical and educational budget by $70,000. Assistant Superintendent of Career and Technical Education Tammy Gage said the district plans to hire a teacher for its new vocational program, Information Support Services and Networking, whose salary accounts for the majority of the jump.

The Eagle Academy would see the addition of a dean of students and share a secretary with Crosby under the budget proposal, which also restores a school adjustment counselor position cut in the current year budget.

Outside of the typical budget, the district has received $5,862,021 under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act. Curtis said the district has two years to spend the money on social-emotional and academic issues caused by the pandemic.

District leaders plan to use the grant to hire 22 staff members, including five elementary literacy coaches, two academic interventionists, more than four academic interventionists, a nurse, an IT specialist, a dean at Reid Middle School, a CTE vice principal, a social-emotional coordinator, and more. About $400,000 has been proposed to restore curriculum, assessments and professional development funding, and $375,000 for summer programming.

The grant would cover two years of health insurance and other benefits for those staffers, expenses that typically come out of city coffers. If the district decides to retain those positions after the grant runs out, School Committee member Mark Brazeau wanted to know how it would afford those salaries and related expenses.

Behnke said state funding increases could possibly help cover the costs after the grant runs out, depending on how the state structures its obligations to districts under the landmark education funding reform law, but that remains to be seen.

Unlike the budget, the district administration can spend the federal grant funds as it sees fit, and does not have to seek approval from the School Committee, noted committee member William Cameron.

If state funding increases along the lines of what Behnke discussed do not materialize, the city and school district would have to find funding to keep the positions on the payroll, or downsize.

If the city and district end up in the position of having to fund the positions, Cameron said closing schools should be the first place official look, adding that district enrollment is hovering around 5,000 students, far below the 12,000 students he said were enrolled decades ago when the city’s landscape and number of public schools was established.

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