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North Adams School Committee Votes to Keep Adjustment Counselor
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
02:10AM / Wednesday, July 01, 2020
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The School Committee reviews a level-funded budget to send to City Council on Tuesday. 
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee voted to take an extra $55,000 out of school choice funds to ensure that a school adjustment counselor would be available to the E3 and North Berkshire academies. 
 
The additional funds were approved Tuesday evening during which the committee OK'd a level-funded budget of $17,769,075 on a vote of 5-2 with members Tara Jacobs and Ian Bergeron voting against because of concerns that the budget did not address what they felt were deficiencies in the arts and special education. The vote to use more school choice funds was unanimous.
 
"I think I need to reiterate this point, because we do not have cherry sheet numbers from our state, this is a placeholder for budget, that's the best way to think about it," said Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas. "This is not in any way shape or form considered finalized because we don't have the numbers that we need in terms of state aid."
 
The level-funded budget was put forth as the fourth scenario last week once the city was apprised that state Chapter 70 education aid would be provided at the same level as last year for at least the first two months of the new fiscal year that begins on Wednesday. Previous scenarios — ranging from 10 percent to 15 percent in cuts — had been offered up in the preceding weeks in anticipation of state cuts caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
 
But most of the proposed initial cuts at 10 percent were rolled into the level-funded budget with the assumption that the School Committee would be facing further reductions once a state spending plan for fiscal 2021 was formulated in Boston. 
 
Committee member Tara Jacobs again expressed her concerns over the cutbacks in music instruction that included a half-time chorus teacher and a half-time instrumental teacher, noting that she had received a number of letters and emails from parents, including home schooling parents whose children participate in band. 
 
"They were very similar in how they express the importance of that program to their lives, both in terms of the importance of music and instrumental, and many things relating to the arts, but actually the interesting component was the connection to the community," she said. "I remain having my own concerns about the priorities expressed in the positions that are on the block right now."
 
Jacobs said she was frustrated that a compromise could not be worked out to find cuts elsewhere and to save the positions. 
 
"We haven't been faced with the situation we're faced with this year," she said. "We've done a public hearing and moved into a vote and it hasn't really troubled me because there hasn't been public comment at all or letters coming in at all, and there hasn't been pushback. ... this is a different year and it actually strikes me, I'm uncomfortable with following a public hearing with a vote when we're not going to back to the drawing board in anyway."
 
Bergeron was more worried about the loss of staffing in the academies — both the E3 Academy, an alternative program for at-risk high school students, and the North Berkshire Academy that had been developed as a regional special education center that could also provide education to for students in area school systems.  
 
The administration is proposing to reduce staff at the two academies hosted at the Armory and reorganize the programs. This was also the focus of the only two commenters during the public hearing focused on education issues. 
 
Malkas said the music positions affected was three: one was being left vacant through a retirement and will be filled internally and the other two were half-time and shared between schools. The cost of those three positions is $221,000. 
 
"We need to get to a level-funded budget, that is not a level service budget, there's inherently going to be cuts," she said. However, she said, the school department is getting some state aid associated with COVID-19 costs, the guidelines for which are not yet known. If those funds can be used for positions, "these are the kinds of positions we can prioritize and bring back to School Committee later in the summer."
 
"The problem we have right now is that tomorrow [Wednesday] starts a new fiscal year, and in the absence of a budget, we need to think about what the repercussions for that are," Malkas said. 
 
Parents Michael Kozik and Matthew Baya called into the Zoom meeting to express their apprehension about the loss of staff at the academies, particularly that of a school adjustment counselor and the sharing of a counselor with Drury High School.
 
"I do not believe that this is sufficient. First off, under this area where students are returning to the school in the fall, surely Drury will have extra need of a school adjustment counselor full time to assist students after being away from school for the past six months," said Baya. "Our students have already weathered a huge change in routine and are bracing for more changes. If there was ever a time for the need for a full-time school adjustment counselor, it's this coming fall. ...
 
"These needs will be even more huge at North Berkshire Academy, which has some students, including my son, who have severe anxiety challenges that are triggered by changes and breaks and COVID-19 is a traumatic event that will have lasting effects."
 
Baya estimated that a shared Drury counselor would have at least 12 hours a week just for the North Berkshire Academy, since a number of students require one-on-one sessions, and that won't take into account unscheduled mental health needs of students. 
 
"We are setting these students up for failure by removing our support," he said. "It's unfair to assume already underpaid and overburdened teachers and paraprofessionals will have the skills and training necessary to handle the mental health challenges load. Our students and our staff deserve better."
 
Kozik said he echoed Baya's sentiments.
 
"The school does need a full-time school adjustment counselor. My son has been in the program since day one. It's an excellent program," he said. "There are a number of social/emotional needs that will not be met if we do away with a full-time adjustment counselor."
 
Thomas Simon, director of student support services, said he has been in discussion with the school adjustment counselor at Drury High School who began at the North Berkshire Academy and who is familiar with how it works.
 
"We're working with him to try to develop a plan for how exactly we will be able to provide services," he said. "It is not ideal."
 
He also noted that not only are the cherry sheet numbers (state aid) not in but grant figures that could provide support for these services are also lagging. The academy also has lower numbers at the moment and the district is trying to take advantage of that while also keeping in my mind the need to prioritize these services should funding be available. 
 
Bergeron said the academy was supposed to be able sustain itself and didn't how it could if the numbers were low and services weren't being properly provided.  
 
"I am very uncomfortable with that position not being filled," he said. "Are we keeping, though, our obligation for therapeutic programs by not having an adjustment counselor? ...
 
"I think we do need to consider the long-term health of this program maintaining itself and by maintaining positions that support it, especially this one."
 
The administration put forward the possibility of funding the position through school choice funds, although Malkas cautioned this would not be recommended past this coming fiscal year. "I'm very concerned about what happens in FY22 when federal, state aid is no longer available," she said.
 
One issue is that federal funds normally can't be used to pay for services or personnel that are already part of the general education. COVID-19 funds might be used but they are targeted for preparing schools specifically to deal with the pandemic. Malkas said the district is still awaiting guidelines for the state aid it received relative to the pandemic needs. 
 
In response to questions, Business Administrator Carrie Burnett said the use of school choice funds that had been set at $265,000 are now estimated at $233,544 for fiscal 2021; adding in the $55,000 to keep the school adjustment counselor post would mean the school choice use would only rise $23,544 above the initial amount, to $288,544.
 
The administration has been generally reluctant to dip too far into school choice funds, preferring to save the money for dire situations over several years.  
 
"We make this choice at a potential risk ... not knowing what the future will hold and not knowing what we may need from school choice in the future," the mayor said. 
 
Jacobs said she had yet to hear numbers on a suggestion to close Greylock School and retain the teachers. Malkas said closing Greylock would mean reconfiguring the grades to fewer sections, which would increase class sizes at Brayton. 
 
"That would be contradictory to our expectations. We're decreasing class size, especially with the guidance we've received from the state, about capacity in the classroom," Malkas said, referring to state guidelines for the pandemic. "So that's why we we didn't go with that."
 
Burnett estimated the savings about about $415,000. 
 
"I'm unpersuaded that's the best way to prioritize how we're making our cuts and disappointed that compromises haven't been found to find a different way to allocate those positions and trim elsewhere," said Jacobs who, with Bergeron, signaled she would not vote for the level-funded budget. 
 
The meeting lasted about an hour but was disrupted by several people early on during public comment for the hearing. The first individual simply repeated a racial slur and a few others — who gave addresses of streets such as "Blackberry" and "San Bernadino" that do not exist in North Adams — made nonsensical comments including references to the "Tiger King" documentary. 
 
Bernard apologized for the "Zoom bombing," saying it is a risk with this form of virtual meeting. 
 
"I am furious right now. This type of behavior is unacceptable. It is outside of the realm of appropriate behavior, and in a discussion related to schools and some fairly vital, fairly important issues related to the budget, future planning ... this is contemptible," he said. 
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