ADAMS — Adams-Cheshire Regional School District interim Superintendent Robert Putnam told town selectmen that goals for the upcoming year include charting a definitive course that either he or a successor can navigate successfully.
"My goal is to set the district up to clearly define the challenges facing the district and start plotting the course," Putnam said. "Regardless of who is here, the issues need to be dealt with. They are pressing. Whoever is manning the rudder, I need to put them in a position that there has been work to pave the way."
Putnam was hired in May with a one-year contract as interim superintendent. He has met with town and Cheshire selectmen as well officials of the three district schools, members of teachers' associations, and is planning meetings with administrators of the town-based Berkshire Arts and Technology charter school and the Charles H. McCann Technical School in North Adams, he told selectmen during an Aug. 10 workshop meeting.
Selectmen's Chairman Jeffrey Snoonian, and Selectmen Joseph Nowak, Richard Blanchard, and Arthur "Skip" Harrington as well as Town Administrator Tony Mazzucco spent about an hour discussing the future of public education with Putnam.
The cost of health insurance for school employees is taking a huge financial toll on the district, Snoonian said.
"We have to do something about health care," he said. "If it keeps going up 10 percent every year, we will be broke."
Putnam said that the district has seen double-digit increases for the past three years. One solution may be to investigate if the Berkshire Health Group as an entity is able to join the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, a nonprofit organization offering insurance services to state municipal entities that are Massachusetts Municipal Association members.
Teachers are a district strength and are facing more and more classroom challenges, Selectmen said.
"The school system has had to become a parent for a multitude of reasons," Blanchard said.
A growing number of families seem less involved with education than in years past, he noted.
Nowak noted that poverty negatively impacts children, and that children who are not nurtured in the home often become students who fall behind in class.
The district loses students to the St. Stanislaus Kostka parochial school, McCann and the BART, and those losses cost funding dollars, Nowak and Harrington said. However, it was noted that students from other communities also attend those schools. Mazzucco said that the problem is not students who choose schools other than district schools.
"The argument we make politically needs to change," he said. "It's 'if we only had regional transportation funding increases,' 'if only the state funded BART,'' Mazzucco said, reiterating opt-heard refrains.
It is time to remind state Department of Education officials that the state guarantees an equal education to all its public school students and that students in less affluent communities are not getting a public school education equal to the education students in richer regions receive, Mazzucco said. The problem is a social justice issue, he said.
"We have got to start screaming that is unjust what goes on in our school district," he said. "If the state doesn't own up to its responsibility, it's wrong, it's fundamentally wrong."
Nowak questioned how "throwing money" at education solves the problems.
"How does more money make a child from a poor family any smarter," he asked.
"If you use resources wisely, if you have more teachers and the programs are well designed, it can make a difference," Putnam said.
Maintaining the Cheshire-based Hoosac Valley High School, which underwent a $40 million renovation about six years ago,school is a priority, Snoonian said.
"That brand-new high school has to be pristinely maintained," he said. "That building needs to last for decades."
Preventative maintenance is key, he said, and Harrington and Mazzucco pointed to issues at the C.T. Plunkett elementary school as evidence. There are several leaks in the school roof, Harrington and Mazzucco noted.
Using a nautical analogy, Harrington said "The boats leaking. We need a plan to maintain our buildings."
"It disturbs me that that has been let go," Harrington said.
Creating a stronger identity for the district and its schools was also discussed as was a need to improve communications between school and town officials.
Snoonian asked about special education costs.
"Do we have any sort of choice with the funding structure of special education," he asked. "Any way to lessen the burden?"
Putnam's answer was rapid and short.
"No," he said.
Putnam told Selectmen that it is "fortunate" that all students are promised a good education. Services that are needed should be provided by the district within the district whenever possible, he said.
"It's a challenge that every district faces," he said. "But I believe that students should be maintained in their own community."