Wednesday November 14, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Pittsfield Public Schools was one of 25 districts in Massachusetts and the only one in Berkshire County on federal record as intending to apply for a competitive Race to the Top grant for school districts.

Nearly $400 million in funds is available nationally, and as of August, 892 public school districts and unions had notified the federal education department of their intent to apply this fall for a chunk of that change.

But when the Nov. 7 deadline for Massachusetts came around last Wednesday -- an extension from the original Oct. 30 deadline offered to states in the path of Hurricane Sandy -- Pittsfield, like other districts in the country, was unable to apply because it didn’t have the required approval of its teachers union.

But the United Educators of Pittsfield hasn’t been the only teachers union to balk at signing off on the Race to the Top grant. The United Teachers Los Angeles, the Classroom Teachers Association of Palm Beach, Fla.; Maryland’s How ard County Education Asso ciation; and the Clark County Education Association in Las Vegas are among the teachers unions in the U.S. that also declined to sign Race to the Top district competition proposals. Those unions cited reasons similar to the Pittsfield’s union, such as the lack of funding sustainability and lack of clarity on how the funds would be invested.


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In Pittsfield, last week’s decision prompted a lengthy letter to the editor from Pittsfield Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy and a paid advertisement in response from the United Educators of Pittsfield in Saturday’s editorial pages of The Eagle.

Both expressed disappointment in the communication process on the subject.

"We are a vibrant community of educators who, with the students of Pittsfield, have now lost the opportunity to apply for a possible $20 million," wrote Noseworthy.

The union membership voted, 135 to 41, against signing on to apply for Race to the Top money. The UEP listed "legal," "moral," "professional," and "financial" issues for its decision.

"Those who bear the responsibility of delivering -- all stakeholders including families, teachers, the community -- were not part of the development of this grant," the UEP stated. "Yet, they are the ones who are completely responsible for fulfilling the promises the district administration makes in the application."

Ultimately, students still have to learn and grow, while the district administration, teachers union and Pittsfield School Committee have to keep accountable to their responsibilities of educating students.

Sizewise, Pittsfield was among 202 districts in the country eligible to compete for Race to the Top grants ranging between $10 million and $20 million.

Only 15 to 25 four-year grants -- ranging from $5 million to a maximum of $40 million -- are to be awarded nationally next month, based on application requirements including the size of the student body. The bigger the student body, the greater the potential award amount could be.

The Race to the Top grant competition was announced by the federal government on May 22, but it wasn’t until August that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan formally invited districts to apply.

A statement of intent to apply was due from districts by Aug. 30, and Pittsfield administrators followed through on it.

According to Noseworthy, seven district administrators and grant writers, including Deputy Superintendent Tracy Crowe, drafted a 195-page Race to the Top proposal between Aug. 30 and Sept. 29. On Sept. 29, Pittsfield teachers union President Gail Yates was notified via email of the district’s plan and was asked to garner the union’s approval to sign it.

Both the Pittsfield school administration and the teachers union say they were stressed for time in preparing the submission and reviewing it.

Incidentally, on the government’s 200-point scale of evaluating Race to the Top district competition applications, the section that scores "stakeholder engagement and support," which includes evidence of direct engagement and support for the proposal from the teachers, is only worth 10 points.

"The [proposal’s] dead now anyway," Noseworthy told The Eagle in a meeting on Tuesday morning. He immediately paused.

"I take that back. We’ve learned a lot from working on that grant and there are parts of it we’re going to use in the future," he said.

In hindsight, the Pittsfield superintendent said his intent was never to make the proposal process "an us versus them" and that he would have also reached out to teachers about the process himself instead of leaving it up to the union president.

Noseworthy also said in moving forward his office door is always open to those "who want to discuss teaching and learning."

Yates told The Eagle this week that "we really did want to work out a way to sign this. But you can’t sign onto something that we’re not fully aware of. That was our dilemma."

She continued, "There can be much more open communication, much more collaborative efforts on both sides."

Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who serves on the city’s School Committee, said he was disappointed in the district’s failed application and hopes that the desire for collaborations comes to fruition.

"This has been a very unusual year. We lost a superintendent and an assistant superintendent and have an interim superintendent and new assistant superintendent in place," said Bianchi.

"We saw a relatively collegial relationship among everyone while working toward a new [teachers] contract. They could’ve been more collaborative in their approach on this, though I understand the timing wasn’t perfect," said the mayor.

"At the end of the day, we’ve got to learn to work together and avoid these kinds of things in the future," Bianchi said.