By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
ADD 1: We are posting this a half hour before tonight’s city council meeting is gaveled to order. We just got a phone call from a source who says he heard from another party who talked to Ward 1 councilor Lisa Tully. It’s third-hand, but the sources are good, so balance those two opposing interests and make of this what you will: Lisa Tully will be flip-flopping tonight. THE PLANET also heard she spent several hours with School Department bag lady Kristen Behnke. Put 2 + 2 together. In Pittsfield, the answer is 5.
Tonight, our Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council take one of their most important and revealing votes, the redux of the administration’s fiscally and operationally suspect request to add to the taxpayer’s burden. Will Nick Caccamo vote on the request for nearly $3 million in new borrowing for school buses? If so, on whose authority? Will any of the councilor’s change their vote? Will there be another Charter Objection? The soap opera will be worth viewing. Another less important but as politically interesting item will be the council’s vote on Bianchi’s mutated selection of Julia Berkowitz Sabourin as his “director of administrative services.” THE PLANET told you Bianchi would give her the job, uncontested, on March 31. It happened exactly as we predicted. Berkowitz Sabourin (the two unhypenated names fit her perfectly) is up for her reward after serving as ax lady for the Bianchi-orchestrated Scopes Monkey Trial (the persecution of Terry Kinnas for the crime of sticking up for taxpayers and Little Guys).
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, APRIL 22, 2014) — While other school districts have thrown their department budgets back to the administration for belt tightening, the city of Pittsfield has — for the umpteenth budget cycle — resorted to cynicism and lies to inflate a figure that already consumes well more than 70% of a $134 million budget.
We’ve recently gone through the exercise of the money proposed for the school buses. Mayor Dan Bianchi‘s request to borrow $2.76 million, actualized, comes to about $23 million, once you figure in all the expenses over five years. Today, to help out the school bus request in context, let’s look at the school budget in general.
The First Lie: Two Sets of Books
The first lie associated with the money it takes to run the Pittsfield Public School system can be found in the accounting, specifically the use of two sets of books. Have you noticed how in any official reference to the PSD budget, they use a figure in the mid-50s (these are millions we’re talking about). That’s the figure listed in the school department books. That’s a lie, because they never mention the second set of books. That second set includes all the accounting for all the other city departments. There, the PSD hides $50 million that goes to the schools but doesn’t show up on the Mercer Street books:
(1) The cost to provides ever-escalating benefits to the more than 1,000 department employees,
(2) The cost of purchasing, maintaining, parking, and running busses, and
(3) The cost of the school department maintenance crew.
This says nothing of federal and state grant money, it too taxpayer supplied, for which the taxpayer is ultimately on the hook.
What Pittsfield Had Better Realize … and Soon
School districts in Berkshire County as well as across the country are beginning to realize the urgency in putting to halt a decades-long, unchecked trend that has routinely boosted school spending even as quality and performance plummet. This was done because of the foolish notion, perpetuated by politicians who wanted to make it look like they were doing something to address the public concern over failing schools, that the problem with public schools was not enough money. Countless trillions of dollars later, America’s public schools have been left in the dust among the nations of the world. Improving schools wasn’t, isn’t, and will never be about the money. The spending spree over the past 20 years has proven that.
School districts not wanting to face the fate of Detroit, San Bernardino, and a host of other bankrupt cities have been fighting back. Once example should suffice. The superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., Karen Garza, submitted a departmental budget that included $96 million in cuts that would eliminate 730 staff positions. The plan is meant to help solve a $130 million budget shortfall.
Garza’s proposal eliminates dozens of administrative posts, including assistant and associate superintendent as well as numerous “assistant principles.” She also advocates charging parents with children in school, not homeowners or businesses through property taxes, for testing fees. Most of those property owners do not have children in the public schools. That will raise $4.2 million in new revenue.
In another example, the school superintendent in Philadelphia, Pa., facing a $304 million budget gap due to excessive union contracts in previous years, has laid off nearly 4,000 school department employees, closed 24 buildings, and eliminated administrative administrative layers. You can also check out what the mayor in Chicago has done. Or Cleveland, which wants to cut $21 million from its school budget.
Keep in mind that all things being equal, no one wants to cut, but all things are not equal. Cuts have become necessary because of the year-after-year of crumbling on the part of wimp politicians before the political power of teachers unions and the administrators, with whom they are in cahoots. The same is true in Pittsfield.
The Second Lie: The ‘Shell Game’ Budget
The PSD’s second lie can be seen in the shell-game manners that proceed the official formulation of the school budget by the department and school committee. Long before the process started, the superintendent of schools, Jake McCandless, said he wanted $2 million for add staff positions as well as nearly $1 million in new spending for hardware, software, and equipment. Then, as he reminded us, just to remain even with last year, taxpayers would have to cough up $1.5 million in negotiated pay raises. That totals north of $4.5 million more.
As the budget process got closer to hard numbers, school Supt. Jake McCandless withdrew the $2 million for new hires. That leaves him at $2.5 million.
Then Bianchi played his part as stooge in the push to get the school department more money while portraying it as a “cut.” Bianchi lamely offered a $1 million increase, saying the school department “request” was $200,000 too much. Remember, at that point, that no official request had been made, proving that Bianchi and JIV were play acting.
Also, note how the numbers get mighty slippery as you move further along in the budget scenario. Be further aware that neither the superintendent nor the mayor seems to be including the $1.5 million in negotiated pay hikes in their mentions of the PSD budget request. THE PLANET won’t mention the bus dough.
What does all this purposeful confusion on the part of the superintendent and mayor mean? It means that Bianchi has promised Jake “only” $1 million in new money. By not mentioning the $1.5 million in pay hike, which in true accounting must be included, this actually means $2.5 million. THE PLANET won’t mention the bus dough.
Thus, here’s the plan, spilled:
* The superintendent agree to the $1 million hike. He will subtract that from his $4.5 million total and will portray this as a $3.5 million “sacrifice” or “cut” or some such. Don’t fall for it.
* The mayor will then brag about how tough he got with the schools and try to pretend he stood up for the taxpayers. This could change, but if the school committee and school department follow their histories going back a generation, they will end up approving the mayor’s additional $2.5 million for the schools. The Suits will portray the heist as a “reduction,” a “cut,” a “retrenching,” a “downsizing” or some other misleading term. THE PLANET repeats: Don’t fall for it.
When The Suits bleat how the state intends to “slash” local school aid, tell them that you know otherwise. Tell them that the governor, the state house, and the state senate have in their respective budget proposals for FY15 called for an increase — an increase — in school spending for Pittsfield.
The current figure for state aid to Pittsfield public schools is $39,447,163. The governor wants to give Pittsfield schools $40,372,416. The proposed number for total state aid to the city in the governor’s proposed budget is $48,865,021. All these figures represent increases to the city.
It’s also interesting to note that the school department in Pittsfield eats up more than 80% of all state aid coming to the city. This illustrates how the schools have fattened themselves at the expense of all other city departments — police, fire, maintenance, highway, parks, and the rest of them. They have done this while still turning out an inferior product, with far too many pupils either dropping out or graduating without the skills necessary for them to successfully compete in college or in the marketplace.
Yes, THE PLANET has taken up this topic numerous times this year and in previous years. We shall continue to hammer away, trying to arm We The People with information.
When The Suits mischaracterize what’s going on with the school budget, don’t fall for it. It’s not a “sacrifice.” It’s not a “cut.” And it for sure is not for “The Children,” who continue to get ripped off by the adults who are running the public schools.
When the apologists who want to keep the gravy train going pack the council chambers, don’t fall for it.
Rather, take action. Consider packing the school committee and council chambers with your own. Communicate with mayor, the superintendent, and, more importantly, the school committee and city council. Share your upset and anger. Demand they begin to address fiscal reality rather than continue to live in the unsustainable Fiscal Fairyland they have created.
People, it’s time to reclaim your government from the so-called “experts.”
“God have mercy on the sinner / Who must write with no dinner, // No gravy and no grub, / No pewter and no pub, // No belly and no bowels, / Only consonants and vowels.” — John Crowe Ransom, from “Survey of Literature.”
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.