Carrie Saldo | On the Record: Pittsfield pieces together pre-K budget

Number of seats will be reduced as city faces financial belt-tightening

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PITTSFIELD — A sacrifice from teachers and stopgap funding from the state. That combination means the Pittsfield Public Schools will be able to fund two pre-kindergarten classrooms next year, educating about 36 students.

The program — currently offered to 72 students — initially was cut from the fiscal 2018 budget, saving about $356,000. It was among the eliminations that shaved more than $3 million to help bring in a proposed budget that is slightly below level funding.

The district also is working on public-private partnerships to restore additional pre-kindergarten classrooms. However, parents may have to pay out-of-pocket to enroll their children in those classes.

"Pending some conversations, we may not see a decrease in the number of seats that are available," Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said.

The two district-funded classrooms will be at Conte and Morningside community schools.

"The need there is great for pre-K," McCandless said. "Ideally we are reserving those spots for students who will be attending Conte or Morningside [for kindergarten] and live in those neighborhoods."

He said the district will likely have a waiting list.

How the district got there

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, secured $50,000 in state funds for district pre-kindergarten. And last month, the United Educators of Pittsfield, the district teachers union, voted to delay its step increase for six months — a move that saved the district $300,000.

McCandless said it will use about $150,000 from that savings and the state funds to restore some of its pre-kindergarten classes. The $200,000 means the district will be able to accommodate about half of the 72 spots it currently has for general education pre-kindergarten students, he said.

Spots for pre-kindergarten special education students, of which there are currently 89, are not impacted by the cuts.

McCandless said the district is meeting with community partners, such as Berkshire Children and Families and Berkshire County Head Start, to discuss the possibility of outside programming within district schools.

Stacy Parsons, executive director of Berkshire County Head Start, said it is developing plans to co-locate two additional classrooms in the community schools.

Head Start has partnered with the district in the past. Parsons said doing so has a number of benefits, including the introduction of students and parents to the school community, ready access to speech and other services for special needs students, and curriculum alignment with the district.

"Our focus is on school readiness skills," Parsons said. "Entering kindergarten is a huge milestone for families. Our teachers are able to partner with the public preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers to ensure a smooth transition for both children and their parents."

Head Start is available at no cost to low-income families. In addition, Parsons said its staff helps families identify vouchers or other funding they might be eligible for that could defray costs. Self-pay is also an option and ranges from approximately $22 to $37 a day.

Concerns raised

But Sue Doucette is concerned that families who would have enrolled their children in the district's pre-kindergarten, won't be able to afford that, and may fall through the cracks.

"I think that in the next few years kindergarten teachers will experience even more challenges with students who have had no prior school experience," said Doucette, who ran the district's early childhood education program for eight years. Her position was cut during fiscal 2016.

She said the district should be adding programs for families, not taking them away.

"Children need a solid foundation that can support added weight as they grow and develop," Doucette said. "A foundation with holes will not support future additions as well as a strong foundation."

She also believes the decision flies in the face of the push for universal pre-kindergarten.

McCandless said he doesn't disagree with her.

"We would offer universal pre-K right now if we had the resources to do it," McCandless said. "We are not legally obligated to do it and we do not have the resources to do it."

Throughout the fiscal 2018 budget process McCandless was clear that fiscal constraints had forced the district to take a close look at what it was required to provide its students. District-funded pre-kindergarten instruction, for students without disabilities, is not mandated by the state.

He said that public-private partnership could be the way of the future, not only here but elsewhere as the call for universal pre-kindergarten education continues to grow.

New attendance policy mulled

As pre-kindergarten seats become even more coveted, McCandless said the district plans to introduce an attendance policy. Under the forthcoming policy, students who miss too many school days could be unenrolled from the program and their seat would be assigned to another student, he said.

McCandless said the district will present the proposed policy to the School Committee within the next month.

Regarding fiscal 2018 enrollment, decisions may not be finalized until June. McCandless said the district recognizes that that may be too late for families who need to finalize arrangements for their children. But he added this is the process the district goes through every year, regardless of fiscal constraints.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.

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