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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.

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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.

Perpetual Victimization

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.

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“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.

 

50 Responses to “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?”

  1. Scott
    March 15, 2013 at 7:37 am #

    Good entry Dan. I have a question does this open meeting law apply when these people communicate and if so would giving screened questions be in violation of that??? Sounds fishy to me. These people should be able to answer questions and be accountable to any errors.

    • FPR
      March 15, 2013 at 9:48 am #

      Scott, your question was not pre-approved by the Planet so therefore cannot be answered.

      Just joking…. good point. No questions should have to pre-submitted for approval. Whoever started all that nonsense?

      • Scott
        March 15, 2013 at 10:35 am #

        Ha, ha, I would like to see Dan as mayor he could answer any question thrown at him I bet. Do you think the public employee lobby is powerful enough to keep him out???

    • Tom Sakshaug
      March 15, 2013 at 2:34 pm #

      A violation of the Open Meeting Law would require more than a quorum of a given body, in this case the Finance subcommittee and/or the School Committee, to communicate outside a public meeting. Ms. Behnke is not on the School Committee, and Barry alone does not constitute a quorum of the Finance Subcommittee,so Barry’s questions to her are not subject to the law at all.
      However, the failure to address an unplanned question is…questionable.

      • danvalenti
        March 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

        SCOTT, FPR, TOM, et al
        The bogus bit about submitting questions in advance came from the school department (Noseworthy’s secretary). You’ll recall when we first reported the exchange, that requirement drew derision from us. Tom’s answer on Open Meeting law is a good one. Barry had every right to submit questions in advance. He did so in the form of seven specific line items from the school budget. We agree: the failure to respond to impromptu questions should be unacceptable. It poses the question: What are they hiding?

  2. dusty
    March 15, 2013 at 7:43 am #

    I actually thought Miss Behnke did at great job until the question about the big transfer. And then someone just asked for time.. I am not a fan of any aspect of the way the school committee runs the schools but she seemed to me to be on top of the numbers until that last questionable issue, which I hope Mr Clairmont digs into.

    Bianchi seemed to be there to support the school side no matter what was going to come down. I would love to see a mayor who would chop that bloated budget by one third. More money is not going to make the kids any smarter. But if someone found out that a bunch of cash was being skimmed off and shunted elsewhere I would not be surprised. But as long as they can keep the books locked up no one will ever know for sure. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any computer compatibility tech to show up at the door.

    • danvalenti
      March 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm #

      The “asking for time” came just at the right time, didn’t it? It was lame and shame in one. The mayor has been “Rover, roll over and play dead” when it comes to the school department.

      • Wilson
        March 15, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

        Union has a lock on the vote. Elections are really a waste of time and money when the union leadership could just make appointments

  3. Ole Jack
    March 15, 2013 at 8:14 am #

    Ah, the differences in perception . . .

    I though “Dancing” Barry Clairmont looked like an amateur and ultimately presented himself like a grandstanding fool. He even started to doubt his own numbers at one point, stammering and sputtering like an unprepared doofus.

    • Scott
      March 15, 2013 at 8:43 am #

      Ole Jack your opinion and interpretation is valued and welcome I’m sure by not only myself but Dan and everyone else. It’s always good to see things from different angles. I think we can all agree any gov’t budget could use restructuring and audits it’s never a bad thing to look over financing and make changes in areas that need improvement. When a department employee get’s defensive that raises a red flag for a lot of people… The people running the money should be able to answer questions.

    • AMBROSE
      March 15, 2013 at 10:28 am #

      I kind of agree. The whole thing looked like a love fest between the two groups. At the end J-Lo and Barry gave comforting speeches and the committee told them to come back anytime. Meanwhile, the musical chair game continues in the principal’s office at PHS.

      • dusty
        March 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

        Actually I thought Alf told them not to come back more than two times per year. And for whatever reason, Lothrop, speaking for everyone, agreed that that was plenty of oversight.

        I guess they knew many more people than usual might be tuning in so they trotted out a dog and pony show of wonderful things happening in the countdown to Clairmont.

        • danvalenti
          March 15, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

          Clairmont wanted quarterly joint budget reviews. Alf wanted two. Two passed. Good point about all the “wonderful things” happening in the schools. It was pure propaganda. The school department is out of control, and taxpayers are paying through the nose for inferior performance.

  4. FPR
    March 15, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    As far as the school department ending the year in deficit, that is not a problem. They will just raise taxes to cover it.

    A councilor such as Melissa will just say “we have to” – “we have no choice”.

    Tax the people back to the stone age and fill the pot. Spend all the money and just fill the pot again. Its the Pittsfield way.

    • danvalenti
      March 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm #

      Right you are about “the Pittsfield way.” Remember when all this comes up again around budget time. It will be for “The Children.” The school department will send 50 people to the council budget review to intimidate them into compliance in support of the racket. If a company in the private sector were run this way, it would be out of business within a year.

  5. Dave
    March 15, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

    I will have to watch a replay, but I think Slippery Barry’s last unscripted question was pointed at Mayor Bianchi. If I remember correctly, Slippery made a point of saying how Mayor Bianchi came before the council to ask for the extra money and he wanted to know why. All his other scripted questions were answered “to his satisfaction” so one must ask-was this strictly political? I have a call in to Jesse the Body Ventura-hope he gets back to me.

  6. Joe Blow
    March 15, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

    In Bianchi’s state of the city address he was really proud of the 200+ spaghetti dinners and d.a.r.e grads he attended last year. It seems he spends a good amount of his time schmoozing around town. Has he busted out that rolodex he talked about while campaigning yet?

    • danvalenti
      March 15, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

      JOE
      The Rolodex was Jimmy Ruberto’s. Bianchi has an iPod. He’s got every D.A.R.E. meeting noted on his calendar and all the “rah-rahs” on speed dial.

  7. Browning
    March 15, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    I watched the meeting on tv. Behnke was smooth except for that “unplanned ” question. That’s when the wheels came off and the school dept looked like it “got caught.” Too bad there was no followup or aggressive pursuit.

    Ambrose is right about the love fest everybody at the end getting all ‘kumbaya’ and the mayor praising everything and everybody. If the kind of man or woman DV described at the end were to run and assuming he or she had the organization and money, that person would win in a landslide. It won’t happen with a token candidate like a Walto or Noto trype. Im talking a real candidate who will put some peoplein the hot seat.

  8. Relax
    March 15, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    What has all the ink spilled on this site regarding the so-called coverage of the goings-on at the school committee resulted in? Not a single thing. No change, no investigation, no resignations. Nothing, Nada, Zip, Zilch.

    It’s basically the same 8-12 people on this site complaining about their elected representatives being on the take, and not looking out for the little guy. Sure, these local yokels they stroke their own egos and pretend that serving on the school committee or the city council is something anyone should be impressed by. But, screaming headlines, innuendo, and breathless leads really don’t amount to much in the long run. These columns are so much cotton candy: they may taste good for a minute, but they leave nothing substantial.

    • danvalenti
      March 15, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      RELAX
      First, no ink is spilled in cyberspace. We work in photons. Second, you are entitled to your opinion that it is all futile and hopeless. Third, as for us, we believe bringing information to light that otherwise would be hidden acts, at minimum, as a safeguard to free institutions. Journalism’s first obligation is the truth. Its main loyalty is to The People.

      • Relax
        March 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm #

        Ink being spilled is a figure of speech, Dan, as you well know. And, this information is hardly hidden. These meetings are open to the public. The minutes are publicly available. So, you’re not exactly ferreting out classified information.

        And there’s as much spin here as there is truth.

        By the by, Barry Clairmont is a graduate of Bryant College, which is a college whose only admission requirements are a pulse and a checking account. So, I’d double check his references before you tout him as some sort of financial savant. Moreover, every year each school district is required to undergo an independent audit within 9 months of the close of its fiscal year. These audits are also publicly available. Perhaps you should review prior audits of the district to gauge its performance before hitching your wagon to the opinion of a man who has difficulty with public speaking, and whose math skills are decidedly lacking, a quality in an accountant that does not inspire confidence.

        • Rivetor
          March 15, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

          The view of Relax is a scary one in its cynicism. He says meetings are open to the public. Minutes are publicly available. True, but how many citizens go to meetings? How many would know about the goings on without the media? DV alone dares to penetrate into the real story time and again. As for school board minutes they are late late late as a routine so if you are depending on them you are outta luck. Your prejudice against councilor Clairmont is sad, Relax. That alone makes you not believable.

          • In the know
            March 15, 2013 at 10:21 pm #

            I think Relax makes a great point. Every meeting is made public and notes from each meeting is free to read. Just a bunch of old geezers with nothing else to do but bitch about Pittsfield If Pittsfield sucks so bad why don’t you angry old fogies move? Bye Bye

          • danvalenti
            March 16, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

            RIV
            I wouldn’t call it “scary.” It’s a point of view, that’s all. RELAX is entitled to it, and this website obviously has him thinking. We welcome all of it. We do appreciate your comments and compliments.

        • taxmano
          March 17, 2013 at 8:28 am #

          @ Relax
          Great points!

        • Shakes His Head
          March 18, 2013 at 9:20 am #

          The audits may be publicly available, but are the management notes?

          • danvalenti
            March 18, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

            Solid point, SHAKES.

    • FPR
      March 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm #

      I suppose when the boring broadcast sheet know as The Berkshire Eagle prints a story, town politicians jump up and change the way they do things.

      After all we all know that the sole purpose of journalism is make the school committee and city council change what they are doing.

      Not.

  9. Jonathan Melle
    March 15, 2013 at 7:04 pm #

    Pittsfield’s accounting works like this: The city government collects millions in state and federal dollars for its public schools and social services programs. The city takes the money as a business, not a provider of public services. It is not about the children going to school or the poor needing social services, but rather, it is about the money. This reality is the fault of the politicians and community. Pittsfield city government is a business, not a provider of services.

    • Joe Blow
      March 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

      So, you always bring this up but still vote D.?

  10. Mr. X
    March 16, 2013 at 4:30 am #

    Lets go Orrrange!! Lets go Orrrange!!

  11. Mr. X
    March 16, 2013 at 4:32 am #

    DV…looks like you’re 3 hours behind now, just did this at 730am.

    • danvalenti
      March 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      We run on PLANET time! And, as one sharp sleuth pointed out, it may mean we broadcast from the West Coast, via bilocation.

  12. AMBROSE
    March 16, 2013 at 5:22 am #

    “THE PLANET showed up for the early portion of Wednesday’s events, and after seeing that our spies were properly placed to cover, …” A real journalist would have stayed to catch the inuendo. Relying on spies who had their minds made up as to what was going to happen a week before is not reporting. You had already told them what to think.

    • danvalenti
      March 16, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      AMBROSE
      Innuendo? From that crowd? Surely, you must be jesting. Our spies do not have their minds made up. You may also be interested to know we watched the meeting later on tape.

  13. Ron Kitterman
    March 16, 2013 at 6:07 am #

    How appropriate, that Ms. Behnke’s comments should come on this week known as ‘Sunshine Week’ celebrated annually on March 16th James Madison’s Birthday. In a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822 “ A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. “…

    • danvalenti
      March 16, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Excellent point, Ron. Sunshine gets rid of the mold and slime that grows under unturned rocks. We’ve been overturning rock all our professional career (and not just in Pittsfield!).

  14. tito
    March 16, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Exactly Planet..Sunshine is the best disinfectant on the Planet, way to kick a buck Ronnie.

    • danvalenti
      March 16, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

      Kick a buck! Gotta love it.

  15. Scott
    March 17, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    Dan, you clearly encourage thought and even inspire the people you piss off it’s awesome!

  16. Joe Pinhead
    March 17, 2013 at 6:32 am #

    While it is true that meetings are open to the public what about the monies we are spending or has been spent to resolve law suits? Be them sexual harassment, discrimination etc can we get an accurate accounting of both the amounts and the reason the suits were or have been brought?
    The DOE has done audits as required and some of the issues outlined have yet to be addressed. If and I say if some of the people in the system are critical of the public and the sunshine brought upon them by serving the public the solution is simple, find employment in the private sector, they will not be scrutinized by the public just the boss and on a daily basis I might add.
    Yes I am certain the Mayor was impressed by the 2nd grade science fair if I recall as a Councilor he toured the EV plant and after viewing the Armitage version of the way back machine he was impressed enough to hand over more goodies to Mr. Armitage and company.

    just sayin

    • Scott
      March 17, 2013 at 6:58 am #

      Joe, that info should be available under a FOIA request.

    • Rivetor
      March 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Once again Joe a great bit of two cents you have added. Lawsuits? Never even thought of that. Can Planet request that information from city solicitor?

      • dusty
        March 17, 2013 at 3:14 pm #

        Seems like I have heard “we cannot discuss personnel issues” whenever anyone asks about such things. This is a great cloak for covering misdeeds that may drag down a whole department. No telling how big a can of beans might get spilled if you open the door a crack and let a little light in.

        • danvalenti
          March 17, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

          That’s why there is often so much resistance to even the smallest request for information. They are hiding much.

      • danvalenti
        March 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

        In point of fact, yes, we can make such a request — but so can you and so can every other citizen.

    • danvalenti
      March 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm #

      Thanks, JP.

      • Joe Pinhead
        March 17, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

        One is left to wonder how much it costs both us the taxpayers and more importantly “the children” not having the most qualified people able to even apply for positions? See prior planet posts regarding Superintendent.
        It would be an interesting Planet post to see the official resumes side by side of Christine Channing Wilson and Jason McCandless just so we can see the qualifications of those unable to apply. Information that is not spelled out in an audit but more important than did the bubble gum account only pay for bubble gum.
        Just sayin

        • dusty
          March 17, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

          The last thing that school committee wants to risk is a potential whistle blower on the inside of the game. I imagine they sweat bullets just thinking about it