Pittsfield School Committee feels push on vocational education plan


PITTSFIELD -- A veteran school superintendent is urging the School Committee to vote with its head -- not its heart -- on the adoption of a controversial new vocational education plan for Taconic High School.

Charles Lyons, the 26-year superintendent of the Shawsheen Valley Regional Vocational Technical School District in Billerica, has advised the school board to make a facts-based decision.

"It can't be based on emotion, but data," he said. "Make decisions on placement data and career options."

Lyons made his remarks during Tuesday night's Pittsfield School Committee meeting.

The committee voted to table action on the vocational education proposal -- it would require two consecutive votes for approval -- until its Jan. 23 meeting. The delay is mainly over local opposition to the elimination of auto body repair and metal fabricating, along with a third program, from the city's vocational curriculum. Under the proposal, five new programs would be added and include early childhood care, office technology and engineering.

The revamped curriculum calls for 14 vocational programs that are expected to meet Berkshire County's future workforce needs, according to city school officials. The revision is part of Taconic's overall education plan, which must be approved by Massachusetts education officials before the city and state can start planning a new high school project at the Taconic site.

Over a two-month period before the School Committee, area tradesmen and alumni of Taconic's vocational programs have defended the need for training future auto body workers and metal fabricators. They claim such career opportunities will exist in and outside the Berkshires over the next decade.

A study conducted last year for the Pittsfield School Building Needs Commission found otherwise, especially for auto body repair.

The future cost of vocational education must also be considered, according to School Committee member James B. Conant.

"We need to make a decision on what we can afford," Conant said. "No sense moving forward with programs we aren't going to fund."

After reviewing Pittsfield's revised vocational plan, Lyons strongly suggested that heating-ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, replace facilities management offered at Pittsfield High School. He noted a HVAC high school program isn't offered in the Berkshires and, unlike facilities management, would be eligible for state vocation education money known as Chapter 74 funds.

Pittsfield's interim superintendent, Gordon Noseworthy, offered that change to the school board, but board members also put that decision on hold.

"I'm not comfortable voting on something I know nothing about," said Katherine L. Yon.

Lyons also cited how strong academic offerings are crucial to vocational education students succeeding in the workforce.

"You can't be an exceptional cook if you don't know how to measure," he said.

Taconic's education plan is the final step of the School Building Needs Commission and Massachusetts School Building Authority's collaboration in laying the groundwork toward determining the type and price of a high school project.

However, the SBA hasn't said when the full feasibility study would begin, which would provide an estimate for the cost of a project. The full feasibility study could take up to 18 months.

As of Oct. 1, Pittsfield High and Taconic have a combined 630 students in vocational education, nearly 40 of whom tuition in from surrounding school districts. City school officials project that figure will jump to 741 under the revised and expanded vocational curriculum.

Finalizing an updated education plan would complete a more than two-year preliminary study that also included assessing the physical condition of the current 43-year-old Taconic and more than 80-year-old Pittsfield High.

Once the preliminary review is complete, the full feasibility study would begin, which will estimate the cost of several options the commission is considering for the Taconic site. Among the options are renovating, renovating with additions, building a new school or doing nothing.

If a project is approved, the state will reimburse the city 78 percent of the construction cost.

While the SBA process forced the city to put forth just one high school for consideration, the state agency has viewed both Pittsfield High and Taconic as part of any overall building project proposal, which most city and school officials have been advocating from the beginning.

Even though Pittsfield High, built in 1931, is nearly twice as old as Taconic, which was built in 1969, SBA officials have said they prefer to renovate, rather than replace, Pittsfield High because it's in better condition -- architecturally and physically -- than Taconic.


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