NAACP School Committee debate

Six of the nine candidates for School Committee met virtually Thursday evening in a debate hosted by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP. Candidates talked school safety, teacher retention and how to adapt to prepare the school district for the future. 

PITTSFIELD — For six of the nine candidates seeking a spot on the Pittsfield School Committee, a Thursday night candidate forum zeroed in on teacher retention, improving school safety and reorganizing the schools’ budgets.

Bill Tyer, Vicky Smith, former mayor Sara Hathaway and current School Committee members Dr. William Cameron, Mark Brazeau and Alison McGee gathered virtually for a debate hosted by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP.

Just hours before the debate began Nyanna Slaughter — who was selected in April to fill the committee seat vacancy left by the resignation of Dennis Powell — pulled out from the School Committee race. Slaughter made no appearance at the debate and active candidates Katie Lauzon, Karen Reis Kaveney Murray and incumbent Dan Elias were missing as well.

Here is what candidates present said about some of the biggest topics facing families and educators in Pittsfield:

How do we keep schools safe?

Tyer: “I may be wrong but I think [we need] resource officers in our schools not just to respond to issues, not just to prevent an issue, but to build that community spirit with the police, with the schools, the educators and let’s not forget the parents.”

Brazeau: “Our SROs have to be properly trained, they need that very specific training to move forward in our schools. And we cannot put any officers in our schools without this crucial training. Moving forward we also have to look at making sure that our SROs also reflect our student body moving forward.”

Cameron: ”The school safety issue is a community issue, it’s not simply a school issue...We have to involve families and we have to involve the community on a larger scale if this is going to be addressed.”

How can we attract and keep teachers in the district?

Hathaway: ”We should have a career ladder in Pittsfield where we start with high school-aged kids and introduce them to early childhood education and child psychology ... if they do become teachers, we’ve got home grown people with ties to the community who may be more likely to make their career here.”

Brazeau: “In order to fix [staff retention], we need to find the funds and we need to work with the budget ... There’s been a pay gap in our country for a very long time and education is always the one that falls to the bottom of the barrel. It’s time to start stepping up and pay them what they’re deserved.”

Smith: ”I’ve talked to a lot of teachers as I sub in the schools and I’ve talked to a lot of them that have left. And they’re very frustrated with the micromanagement and the feeling like they have no freedom to be their very best self.”

How can we prepare students for the future?

McGee: “...Part of that is looking at creative economic structures with our students, looking at a wide range of career possibilities that involve a number of levels of skills and helping them brainstorm ways that they could take a job to another level.”

Hathaway: ”I think that externships seem like a really great way to show the kids you can be useful. You have skills already that workplaces want and here’s what it would be like to shadow someone in your chosen career path. I think people would enjoy that both in the business community and the students would also value that opportunity.”

What can we do to improve student experiences?

Smith: ”I watch teachers being evaluated when I’m subbing and there’s a checklist of how well they comply to the manual, to the scripted program because they think programs teach better than people do. It doesn’t show how much the kids are engaged, how much they love to learn, it just shows whether the teacher was compliant. And I think that really needs to change.”

Tyer: ”If kids aren’t learning how we’re teaching, we need to teach how they learn it ... We all have to be involved and that goes for parents, teachers and everybody....and we have to give the incentive [to students to learn].”

McGee: “We really need to look at are we presenting to our students the best learning environment that shows them that we value their education as much as they should.”

Cameron: “We need to design programming that will be unusual....I think that programming and convincing people that schools are in fact safe and orderly is the key to bringing students back in or attracting students from outside the district.”

Should we consider alternatives to standardized testing?

Hathaway: “Letting students demonstrate their competencies through projects or coursework...by the time they graduate...I think that’s worth looking at...It doesn’t all have to be about testing. I think in some ways the testing has been useful but maybe it’s outlived its usefulness.

What should be the future of Pittsfield’s school buildings?

Brazeau: ”Do we need all 12 school buildings that we had with 12,000 students? We’re down to 5,100 students with the same number of school buildings.... That’s also a way that we could look at saving money in our budget is to decrease the number of schools that we have.”

McGee: “Crosby is a central location for a lot of very supportive programs, which are hugely important....those programs have had a long standing location at Crosby and there’s a feeling that that is the place where you’re sent when you can’t succeed. I think we need to change that. I think if we’re truly looking at inclusion in our district, we really need to make sure that we can support all learners and educators in multiple buildings in an efficient way.”

Meg Britton-Mehlisch can be reached at mbritton@berkshireeagle.com or 413- 496-6149.

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