SCHOOL DEPARTMENT “CHOO-CHOOS” AROUND COUNCIL FINACE SUBCOMMITTEE $$ QUESTIONS … TAXPAYERS GET HOSED WITH BEHNKE CONTROLLING THE SPIGOT … TECHNOLOGICAL DIVIDE POINTS OUT ACCOUNTABILITY GAP … AUTO BODY, METAL FAB PROGRAMS KEPT … BENSON LEAVING PHS … plus … “HUMAN SERVICES,” BUT AT WHAT COST?
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, IDES OF MARCH, 2013) — The Wednesday night Chowder Roast and Clam Fest of the Pittsfield School Department (PSD) Bund — attended by the Pittsfield school committee and, by special invitation of interim McSuper Dr. Gordon Noseworthy after having declined one of theirs, the Pittsfield city council’s finance subcommittee — revealed the canyonesque holes in the city’s entire budgeting process.
The Great Technological Divide
During the review, it became clear that one of the hurdles impeding a good flow of information between school side and city side is technological: both sides use different, and incompatible software. This technological divide, as do all of the service duplications forced on reluctant taxpayers (e.g., separate maintenance, purchasing, accounting, and budgeting functions) serve only the interests of the PSD, not the city.
It does so by keeping the city’s nosy representatives, therefore taxpayers, from truly having a clue what city side is doing with about $90 million. We wonder why this mayor, as well as his predecessors, does not make this a major point of contention. This is the administration, remember, that campaigned on “transparency.” Two clashing software programs that will eat each other up if they come within 20 bytes of each other seems rather opaque to us, anything but transparent, but then again, we do not boast a great deal of technological savvy. We are simple scribes, reporting on truth, serving citizens, and requiring verifiability.
When councilor-at-large Barry Clairmont brought up specific line items that indicated nearly $1 million in surplus cash that had been sent to the schools, Asst. McSupt. for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke started blowing like crooner and band leader “Tex” Behnke saxing the into to “Chatanooga Choo Choo.” Behnke, Kristen, bobbed, weaved, and juked her way into essentially saying to Clairmont: I will not answer any questions you did not send me in advance. Whatever “apparent” surplus you think you may have uncovered, well, that’s just an illusion created by the different accounting software.
The “Choo Choo” exchange came when Clairmont asked about additional money the city sent schools to fund yet another round of pay increases won by the United Educators of Pittsfield for its members.
Behnke: ‘Ask of Me No Off-The-Cuff Questions, Peon’
At the time of that request (made in November 2012), Clairmont voted against the transfer of $256,389 to the schools for the pay increases. That was the correct vote. Using his accounting background, he calculated that the schools were already running at a surplus, enough to fund the pay increases of teachers without hitting taxpayers up for more bread.
“Out of the transfers, $211,000 went to non-salary items, and that says to me that you didn’t need the $256,000,” Clairmont said to Behnke. He followed by presenting Behnke with an inconvenient fact: Seventy-four days after the schools made the push for more cash from beleaguered Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski, the school had moved more than 80% of the money into school expenses not related to salaries. That’s when Behnke “Choo Chooed,” saying she couldn’t respond because that wasn’t on the list of questions submitted in advance.
It seems Clairmont caught the school department lying through their teeth and gums.
Behnke would have done better simply getting up and bitch slapping Clairmont and the rest of the council’s finance subcommittee for daring to expect her to respond in a way that was not rehearsed, pre-programmed, and cleared by her bosses. Thus, once again, the school department thumbed its nose as common sense as represented by an honest inquiry into its mysterious finances.
What are the odds, ladies and gentlemen, that come budget time, the school department will have gone through all of the $1 million in surplus and come crying about the danger of ending the school year in debt. Mark our words, because that was strongly hinted at in Wednesday night’s proceedings. Behnke pretty much declared a deficit: “I certainly don’t feel comfortable — and I don’t know how the school committee would feel — about ending the year in deficit,” she said.
That remark should have been prefaced by “Spoiler Alert!” Behnke knows full well the school committee would be terrified at ending in a deficit. The committee, minus its lone advocate for taxpayers Terry Kinnas (unable to make the meeting for personal reasons), took Behnke’s “warning” as they do everything else, like good little lap dogs eager to do their masters bidding. The correct action would have been a unanimous showing of the school committee in support of the council’s attempt to do the job they should be doing. Instead, our Right Honorable Good Friends on school side went out without a whimper.
Stop the Presses! Bianchi: ‘Excited’ at Second-Grade Science Fair
Mayor and school committeeman Dan Bianchi threw his weight around by telling the gathering that he attended the science fair at one of the local grammar schools. He was, naturally, “excited” about the work of the second graders. Bianchi did not say if he spent time at the science fair at the expense of other, less important matters such as job creation, expanding the tax base, and figuring out how to lower taxes. Ah, but what’s a mayor for?
THE PLANET showed up for the early portion of Wednesday’s events, and after seeing that our spies were properly placed to cover, we made haste, imaginatively choosing to light up a Paso Dobles in the PHS boy’s room. It was our only moment of nostalgia from being, once again, in the tan-bricked hallowed halls. You might be interested in knowing that before the meeting ended, the school committee approved a new vocational ed curriculum for the public schools. There will be 15 vocational programs, including the retention of auto body and metal fabrication.
Noseworthy also announced that PHS principal Tracey Benson will be leaving PHS to attend Harvard in the fall. Previous McSuper Jake Eberwein The Third promoted Benson from Triple A (Herberg) to take over PHS in 2010. Benson made $92,000 + bennies a year. His replacement will likely be brought in at the usual $20K raise, sight unseen. The still unsolved, gone-but-not-forgotten theft of $9,000 of prom money remains as one of Benson’s notable achievements. We wonder if that’s what Kathy Amuso meant when she said that Benson “has brought stability, and the school is in a good place now.” Think about the vapidity of that quote, and ask yourself: Do you really think the school committee should get paid $10,000 a year?
The meeting thus ended with the usual train wreck for good, honest citizens, who are begging for someone, anyone, to hold the $90 million school department accountable for its ways.
COMMUNITY BLOCK GRANTS, or, HERE COMES THE ANNUAL GIVEAWAY OF TAXPAYER MONEY THAT KEEPS PEOPLE IN POVERTY AND VICTIMIZATION
Once again, Pittsfield hosted its annual Gimme Grab, otherwise known as the give-away of up to $1 million in federal dollars via community block grants. The city’s office of community development oversees the cash grab, steering the money — of course — toward low-income residents.
At the initial hearing on who should get the bucks and why, various agencies spoke of a myriad of neighborhood needs, from sidewalk repair, curb cuts, disability ramps in homes, development of a Housatonic river walk, summer staff for Pitt and Dorothy Amos parks, fire and carbon dioxide alarms for homeowners, blight eradication, teen pregnancy programs, youth literacy projects, free meals and food items, better public lighting, and more.
The philosophy behind this list rarely, if ever, gets discussed, though it can leave reeling middle- and lower-middle-class residents with silent disgust. These are homeowners and small businesses that have to pay 100 cent on the dollar if they want carbon monoxide alarms, ramps, food, and the like. No one thinks about them. No one advocates for them. They are simply expected to keep their mouths shut and pay, pay, pay.
You see, one can’t, just can’t, speak out against these programs, because that would in effect be aligning oneself with Ebeneezer Scrooge — at least according to the unquestioned local propaganda. You would be painted as a bad man, a bully, a heartless mob boss, a man who kicks the canes out from old ladies. Most of our Right Honorable Good Friends on the Pittsfield city council, especially the ward reps, love the grant program, because it gives them the chance to appear to be “advocating” for the “needy” in their districts. OCD loves the program because it gets to play Santa Claus. It was one of Deanna Ruffer‘s favorite power trips.
No doubt some of the money can be and is put to good community use, and much of it does deserve to be awarded to those who need a hand up (not a hand out), but too much (even $1 would be too much) of it goes to perpetuate the poverty too many people choose for themselves by becoming “victims.” Pittsfield has more than its share of “the world owes me a living” types and too many public officials who want to play the largess of the Big Shot by dealing out the dollars. The subsequent mindset is one of “I can’t” instead of “I will,” a losing attitude that has every bit as much to do with job creation as the tax rate, red tape, and any other factor you might mention.
As motivational speaker Matt Foley might put it, “You keep up this fairy-tale giveaway, and you might find yourself living in a van down by the river.” For there is one constituency that never gets mentioned when it comes to handouts of public money. You guessed it: Their names are Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski.
What Pittsfield need more than ever is a person who will come out of nowhere and run on a campaign geared toward the forgotten Mr. and Mrs. K. Only then will the taxpayer-dollar giveaways have a chance of a fair shake. That candidate would take the election by storm.
“Cold-hushed, there is only the shifting of moments / That journey toward no Spring — / No birth, no death, no time nor sun / In answer.” — Hart Crane
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.