PITTSFIELD -- The second of three finalists to be interviewed for superintendent of Pittsfield schools, Jason "Jake" McCandless, assured School Committee members Tuesday that he would make a long-term commitment.
McCandless, 42, the superintendent in Lee schools for the past eight years, lives in Pittsfield and has children in city schools. Saying he hopes the best of the three finalists, "even if that is not me," is named superintendent, McCandless said the city needs someone to remain in the job for more than a few years.
"This community needs someone here for a decade," McCandless said.
The Lee superintendent is the second finalist interviewed to lead the 6,000-student system and replace Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, who left in June to accept a position at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. Gordon Noseworthy is now serving as interim superintendent for one year.
William Hart, assistant superintendent at Pentucket Regional School District, met with the committee on Monday, and Ann Bradshaw, superintendent in Mashpee schools, will be interviewed on Monday.
The committee intends to make a decision in late February.
In answer to questions from board members, McCandless said he has always stressed communication and engagement with all members of the community -- including having "many difficult conversations" with local officials, parents and others, often concerning school budget decisions.
His intent is always to engage and be out in the community, he said, and always to "treat people with respect," while proving through his actions that "I am here for the good of the kids."
Citing some of his accomplishments in Lee, McCandless said school choice losses of two students leaving for every one coming into the system have been reversed during his tenure, and now two come into Lee for every one who goes elsewhere.
The key, he said, is to focus on improving the course offerings and atmosphere in the schools and promoting successes. In that way, "school choice will take care of itself," he said.
McCandless also cited a greatly expanded Advanced Placement program in Lee that more than quadrupled the number of students taking advanced courses, and early and constant intervention with at-risk students that has helped lower the amount of special education designations for students from 25 percent to 15 percent.
In addition to stressing communication between principals, administrators, teachers, staff members, parents and students, McCandless said "sometimes you have got to just shut up and listen" to what people are trying to tell you.
"I am going to be out there [in the community]," he said. "Presence is half the battle."
In budgeting decisions, he said, the focus should always be on what is needed in the classroom to make education more effective, not on the many other aspects of a budget that receive funding.
He also said Pittsfield has an opportunity to create an exceptional vocational education program in a proposed new Taconic High School that would be a draw for students from outside the city -- but that there must be a strong commitment to staffing, programming and equipment.
Closing the city's achievement gap compared to some other systems means closing the level of advantages between students with radically different home lives, McCandless said. He advocated forming new partnerships with nonprofit groups, colleges, the United Way and other organizations to help better prepare every student and to keep them from disengaging from the process.