PITTSFIELD -- Jason "Jake" McCandless can easily relate to the nearly 6,000 students in the Pittsfield Public Schools.
A father of three children in the district, the city’s relatively new school superintendent relies on his paternal instincts to understand the needs, concerns and celebrate in the successes of the students.
McCandless dispensed some of his fatherly advice to the Crosby Elementary School students who recently graduated from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E. The nearly 50 youngsters listened intently to his brief speech during their graduation ceremony.
"As a dad, I am a big fan of what D.A.R.E teaches you in making good choices," said the 42-year-old McCandless. "It’s a great door-opener for parents, having a conversation with their 10- and 11-year-olds."
Outgoing veteran School Committee member Kathleen A. Amuso isn’t surprised McCandless has the attention of students and the rest of the school district. The two of them co-chair the Pittsfield School Building Needs Commission currently exploring a nearly $70 million project for Taconic High School.
"He’s a good communicator," said Amuso, who in January leaves the school board to join the City Council. "Jake’s management style will help the district move forward as fresh eyes can see some of strengths and weaknesses."
"He also takes the time to explain situations in a lengthy email or phone call," said Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga, the current School Committee chairman who didn’t seek re-election in November.
"I give him an ‘A-plus’ for the first six months," he added.
Pittsfield’s top educator for six months, McCandless has drawn on 15 years of parental experience and two decades of work in public schools to begin a five-year stint guiding the city’s school system through anticipated financial, educational and physical changes.
McCandless and his administrative team will soon begin preparing the fiscal 2015 budget, subject to final approval from the City Council. Currently, Pittsfield pays $55.5 million to educate its children, a far cry from the $8.14 million spending plan McCandless helped orchestrate before leaving the Lee Public Schools June 30 after eight years as its superintendent.
In addition, McCandless will oversee Pittsfield’s implementation of revised curriculum standards and a new state-mandated teacher evaluation process, along with exploring potential renovation or new construction on the Taconic campus.
The city resident of 12 years says having his daughter Meredith, 10, and sons Eamon, 14, and Ethan, 15, attending an elementary, middle and high school, respectively, has helped him transition from running a small town school system to an urban one.
"I try to approach a situation as if this will affect someone’s child -- a most precious treasure," McCandless said in a recent Eagle interview from his office.
McCandless also has developed a good rapport with district employees, especially with the teachers, according to their union leader. United Educators of Pittsfield President Brendan Sheran says the new school boss has helped mend the relationship between the UEP and district’s administration and School Committee following two consecutive -- sometimes confrontational -- contract negotiations.
"He recognizes teachers as the professionals they are and will help in the district buying into initiatives," he said.
Sheran also supports the five-year contract that McCandless was given by the school board; he believes it will bring stability to the district. Traditionally, the city school board has hired superintendents three years at a time.
"If you have a long-term relationship, you can do good things," Sheran said.
If McCandless serves out the entire five years, with a starting annual salary of $157,000, he’ll have the longest superintendency in Pittsfield since William Travis held the position from July 1, 1998, to June 30, 2005.
The School Committee hired McCandless in April. On July 1, he officially replaced Howard "Jake" Eberwein III, who left in June 2012 to accept a position at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams. Gordon Noseworthy filled the year gap, serving as interim superintendent until June 30.
Before his stint as principal at Lee, McCandless, a western Pennsylvania native, was assistant principal at Louisa County High School in Mineral, Va., from 1999 to 2002. Louisa County had an enrollment then of 4,500 students. McCandless served as a teacher and as chairman of the high school’s English department.
While McCandless has previously worked in a large school district, he needs to balance his personal touch with students, teachers and staff with looking at the bigger picture.
"I need to develop my skills and knowledge to deal with all 12 schools systemwide," he said.
Aside from also developing a good working relationship with Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and the City Council -- who control the city’s purse strings -- McCandless wants to also foster cooperation with other area school districts.
"From Williamstown to Provincetown, every school system is thinking the same -- we need to work together," he said.
To reach Dick Lindsay:
or (413) 496-6233.