PITTSFIELD -- Supporters of vocational education programs being considered for elimination were tossed a lifeline Wednesday when the Pittsfield School Committee referred the matter to its curriculum subcommittee for further study and to garner more input from members of the public.
Although the auto body repair and metal fabrication programs -- the object of ardent expressions of support during recent committee meetings -- were not retained in a proposed new curriculum, committee members indicated they want to be flexible. Adding another course to the proposed vocational curriculum, or finding ways to "cluster" existing programs to retain key components of all, were among options.
After three more speakers, including Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo, urged the committee to further study all options before eliminating the programs, committee member Kathleen A. Amuso made a motion to refer the issue to the subcommittee.
"We have gotten so much [additional] information on this," she said. "We should have a dialogue with the tradespeople."
A stream of local business owners, educators, students and other community members have voiced support for the programs at recent committee meetings whenever it appeared the committee was close to voting on the proposed course lineup for Taconic High School. The committee received a recommendation in the fall from its Building Needs Study Commission to accept details of a consultant's report on a revised curriculum, but the committee has repeatedly delayed a vote as opposition seemed to increase.
Amuso said the report from the consultant should be supplemented by more detailed information from the community. The report recommended eliminating auto body, metal fabrication and power equipment technology and adding five new programs, including early childhood care, office technology and engineering -- new courses believed to be needed in the future workforce.
The committee unanimously endorsed Amuso's motion to refer the issue. Curriculum Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon encouraged all committee members to attend the information-gathering sessions, which are expected to be scheduled next month prior to a possible vote on a curriculum plan by the end of February.
Lurking behind the decision is the fact the curriculum plan is a key element required to move forward a proposed major school building project -- either replacing or renovating Taconic High School. The state, which would be expected to provide 78 percent funding for the work, requires the plan in place before preliminary options and cost estimates can be developed.
Another key worry has been whether further delays in the curriculum decision might jeopardize or push back the timeline for the long-sought building project. However, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, a member of the committee, said he had spoken with state officials and learned the city "would not be penalized" for being deliberate and taking additional time.
"I think this is a prudent thing to do," Bianchi said in response to Amuso's motion.
The mayor added that there might be options for expanding enrollment in vocational programs in the city beyond the current 630 (expected to reach 741 with the proposed new courses), and a higher enrollment total could affect a formula for determining how many programs a system of Pittsfield's size could support.
"If we do a better job of promoting this and structure it properly," he said, more students might decide to take courses.
Interim Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy, in response to a question from committee member Daniel Elias, said the building project time frame and funding availability would not be jeopardized by further study. But he later added that "sooner or later, the School Committee does have to make a decision."
The lengthy debate on the issue of vocational programs over the past several weeks has, in itself, been a positive development, Noseworthy said, having helped produce "a climate change" in the system.
Much information has been received from the public and the business community, he said, and there now is a greater open emphasis on "careers" and not only college goals within the schools. Noseworthy said there also is an administrative goal of ensuring a work/ study aspect to the curriculum, rather than having students split days between the shop and the classroom, which has been criticized as ineffective.
An important consideration when the proposed vocational lineup is altered, he said, will be cost -- meaning there might not be state funding for a "15th program."
Bianchi said he understood that as well, but stressed that he believes more course options can be accommodated if the schools have a comprehensive overhaul in mind, not merely the addition or subtraction of a few courses.
To reach Jim Therrien:
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_therrien