Televised session proposed to get rundown on Pittsfield school operations

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PITTSFIELD — The School Committee is considering a full-day, televised budget session to hear in detail from all of the principals in city schools on what they need to meet state and district education goals.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless this week asked the committee to consider an unusual full-day meeting on Jan. 13, broken into morning and afternoon sessions and held between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. He asked for individual emailed feedback from committee members on the proposal prior to a possible vote at the next meeting, Nov. 18.

The committee also received an update Wednesday from the superintendent on statewide standardized testing changes expected over the next few years, and committee members unanimously endorsed proposed legislation to place a moratorium on any new Massachusetts charter schools.

Noting the long list of requests his office receives each budget season from department heads — and the number of worthy requests he must cut away before the administration submits its first-round budget to the committee — McCandless said he wants board members to hear from those working every day at the school level.

During the budget sessions last fall and spring leading to the current fiscal 2016 budget, the principals submitted requests totaling about $3.5 million more than McCandless' initial budget submission to the board. That figure, in turn was reduced by the committee during the budget process that led to Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi submission of an overall city budget to the City Council.

"I'd like the principals to present the needs at their schools," McCandless said Wednesday, adding that he understands the daylong meeting would be "a big time commitment" for board members.

However, he said it's important that they receive "unfiltered" reports on the needs at each school, including new equipment and additional staff members. An understanding is especially important as a comprehensive school improvement plan is being implemented.

"There is great power in hearing from the people who directly oversee the work in our schools," he said.

In addition, the meeting also would provide the community with greater insight into the operation of city schools, he said, as the sessions would be televised by Pittsfield Community Television and recorded for viewing later on the local cable network or online.

"I think that story needs to be told to the public by the people dealing with [education issues] each day," McCandless said.

The superintendent also updated the board on the likelihood the state will approve a new standardized test system for Massachusetts students that was referred to as "MCAS 2.0."

McCandless referred to comments by Education Secretary James Peyser — www.berkshireeagle.com/news/ci_29108065/mass-schools-chief-mulls-cost-parcc-mcas-hybrid — in favor of creating a hybrid standardized test for the state, borrowing from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers testing systems.

The superintendent said it now appears a "next generation" MCAS system, taken online in the manner of the PARCC tests students in Pittsfield and elsewhere have taken on a trial basis, won't be ready for use before 2017.

He added that it's expected Massachusetts also will remain involved in the multi-state consortium that developed the PARCC system to allow the state flexibility in creating and maintaining its own unique testing system.

The committee also voted unanimously to support a joint statement from the administration and committee and the United Educators of Pittsfield. It will be sent to the local state legislative delegation and other lawmakers concerning Senate bill S-326, which calls for a moratorium on establishing any new charter schools.

Chairwoman Katherine Yon said an audit of the charter school system, conducted by the office of state Auditor Suzanne Bump, sharply questioned the dollar and educational value of charter schools, which were proposed in part to spur innovation in all public schools.

Yon said criticism from the auditor and public school educators, school committee members and others around the state shows a need to re-evaluate charter schools and possibly restructure them before approving any new ones.

School officials in Pittsfield and elsewhere have consistently criticized the funding formula for charter schools, which receive state funding for students who choose to go there while deducting the amount from the local public school system.

Yon and other committee members also noted that teachers in charter schools, unlike in other public schools, do not have to be fully licensed or keep up professional certifications.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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