PITTSFIELD — Pittsfield’s School Committee will be led by its most senior members through a busy year. During the first meeting of the new committee this year, members voted unanimously to appoint Dr. William Cameron and Dan Elias as chair and vice chair, respectively.
On Wednesday, the committee also selected second-term committee member Mark Brazeau to serve as its clerk.
“Election to the position of chairperson is an honor,” Cameron said. “I will do my best to chair the committee fairly and openly and preside over these meetings in an orderly and respectful manner.”
Cameron served on the School Committee from 1992 to 1995 and was reelected in 2018. In between his time on the committee, he served as the superintendent or interim superintendent for four school districts across the state.
Elias has been a committee member for 24 years, 18 of them as vice chair.
Here is some of the work the School Committee faces in the months ahead:
Contact tracing in public schools will continue for the moment, but the sustainability of that program as cases rise and the coronavirus pandemic drags on is being discussed by district leaders, according to Superintendent Joseph Curtis.
Curtis said that a recent change to the district’s daily coronavirus count — it now breaks out the new coronavirus cases by grade, school and staff position each day — is intended to streamline an increasingly heavy task for school staff and nurses.
Curtis said that close in-school contacts still will get a phone call from a district staff member, but all other coronavirus inquiries will be directed to the new chart.
Mayor Linda Tyer commended the district on its work to conduct contact tracing in tandem with the city’s public health nurses, especially after state contact tracing programs have ended.
“I realize this is a logistical challenge and understand why it might be more than schools can handle,” Tyer said. “ I just think it’s important ... even if we only get 75 percent of people traced, we’re still making an impact.”
Closures, staffing and weather events
Close monitoring of staffing levels is expected to be necessary for several more weeks as the district continues to struggle with staff absences from the coronavirus and substitute shortages, according to Curtis.
The superintendent made the decision to close Taconic High School and Reid Middle School last week, after it became clear that the district didn’t have the staff to “safely supervise” those schools. Curtis reiterated that there is “no number” but a “very careful analysis of the staff that are out” each morning that leads to a school closure.
Curtis said that he begins each morning about 3:30, to monitor local weather and staffing conditions. On a day when a weather closure is in the mix, he said, he and other district staff drive local roads and walk city sidewalks to evaluate the travel conditions for students and staff. The superintendent said that any closure, for weather or staffing, will be decided by 5:45 a.m., when staff begins preparing for the workday.
School safety study
Curtis told the committee that TNTP, a consultant hired by the district to conduct a school safety study, has entered phase two of its work, and is planning to conduct community listening sessions and surveys with “stakeholder groups” during the next month.
The surveys and community conversations will form the basis of a report focused on school safety and school resource officers. That report is on track to meet the “aggressive timeline” of a presentation in April, according to Curtis.
A new budget calendar
The School Committee adopted a tentative new budget schedule to prepare the group for the 2023 fiscal year. The new schedule breaks out the budget into several presentations from January to March, and would set the final budget vote for April 27.
District officials are adding two new meetings into the budget season this year to make space for deeper discussion by the committee and public: a budget workshop for the committee and a public hearing, both set for late March.
Cameron said that he hopes to continue the work started late last year to revitalize the group’s subcommittees — reworking the subcommittees into a space for more regular in-depth discussion and cutting down on the time spent at the full committee meetings.
Committee member Alison McGee suggested the creation of three new subcommittees to match the district’s current focus. McGee proposed that a social and emotional learning subcommittee, a diversity, equity and inclusion or anti-racist subcommittee, and data and assessment subcommittee be created. A discussion of new subcommittees has been scheduled for the School Committee’s next meeting.
Discussion of a pilot program to bring a comfort dog to the school district and, eventually, one comfort dog to each school will be taken up by the committee at its next meeting.
Curtis said he has been talking with Lee Kohlenberger, from Berkshire Dogs Unleashed, about bringing the support poodles into the district. Kohlenberger recently made news for his donation of free comfort dogs to the Pittsfield Police Department, Dalton Police Department and Lenox Public Schools.