Our opinion: Grant worth a signature

Tuesday November 13, 2012

Approval of a funding mechanism for pay raises for Pittsfield teachers comes to the City Council tonight in the context of the failure to bid for a $20 million education grant, the particulars of which played out on The Eagle’s editorial pages Saturday. The contract is a reasonable one, as is Mayor Daniel Bianchi’s proposal to pay for it out of surplus funds, but the grant tiff leaves a sour taste.

The three-year contract arrived without any of the usual drama and the teachers’ willingness to tie their salary increases to the amount of state aid money received in each of the three years admirably puts the interests of schools first. With negotiations in progress, the mayor held off on a funding request for the pay increase and with the contract signed it’s reasonable for the City Council to agree to finance the $256,389 in salary increases for the first year with surplus money.

In a lengthy editorial page column Saturday, Pittsfield schools Superintendent Gordon L. Noseworthy described the failed attempt this fall to apply for a $20 million U.S. Department of Education "Race to the Top" grant. If awarded, he wrote, the grant could have been instrumental in closing the achievement gap among students in city schools. He expressed deep regret that United Educators of Pittsfield President Gail Yates did not sign off on the request, which was required for it to go forward.

In a paid advertisement on the opinion page, the teachers union complained that the administration should have applied for the grant earlier and there was not enough time to explore its details. Regardless of the time frame, there was time enough, according to Mr. Noseworthy, for a meeting with Ms. Yates and five UEP members on October 22. The UEP appeared to be reaching for excuses to reject the grant, rather than finding reasons to approve it. It is doubly disappointing that less than one-third of the membership showed up for the November 5 vote in which the grant request was opposed.

The UEP worried in its ad about how the grant would transform the district and what would happen after the money ran out. Pittsfield has solid schools, but there is room for improvement the grant may well have triggered, and why worry about the schools post-grant while still in the pre-grant process?

At the aforementioned October 22 meeting, the superintendent wrote that one teacher said she did not want to be told what or how to teach -- presumably to meet grant requirements -- and two complained the grant would require more work for teachers because of added individual instruction and technology. Lending credence to the superintendent’s concerns, at least in regards to the last complaint, is the UEP’s reference to the "unsuccessful laptop initiative" in its advertisement. We would dispute this, and we are sure many students and parents would as well. In any school system there are teachers who resist change and more obligations, and they may have carried the day.

Mr. Noseworthy wrote that the grant could have dramatically improved the school system and enabled it to "move forward much to the benefit of all learners." We’ll never know if the city would have won the grant but the UEP should have given the city the opportunity to do so.


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