PITTSFIELD — Seven of the eight remaining candidates vying for six seats on the city’s School Committee participated in a community forum on Monday, nearly two weeks before voters head to the polls.
The evening debate, hosted by iBerkshires.com and Pittsfield Community Television, was held at the Berkshire Athenaeum and included four incumbents in Mark Brazeau, William Cameron, Daniel Elias and Alison McGee, as well as three of the four challengers: Sara Hathaway, Vicky Smith and Bill Tyer. Karen Reis Kaveney-Murray was unable to attend the debate due to a prior commitment, according to Bob Heck of PCTV, who moderated the forum.
The top six vote-getters in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2 will each clinch a two-year term on the School Committee.
Though eight are actively campaigning for office, ten names will appear on the School Committee ballot. Two others who submitted nomination papers have bowed out of the race, and are no longer seeking election. They are Current Pittsfield School Committee member Nyanna Slaughter, who declined to endorse another candidate, and Kate Lauzon.
Lauzon told The Eagle on Monday she made the “very difficult” decision to pull out of the election due to health issues.
She endorsed Kaveney-Murray, a Morningside Community School parent originally from São Paulo, Brazil, who has provided translation services for the district and works as a customer service representative for the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
The candidates on Monday exchanged views on a range of issues facing local schools, staking out positions on topics including pay for teachers and support staff, school building needs, curriculum and school safety. The format was organized so that one question was posed to three candidates, with another question being asked of the next three candidates, so each candidate did not answer each question.
Candidates were, however, afforded time to circle back and address questions or topics they weren’t asked by the moderator directly.
Here’s some of what the candidates had to say. Some of the questions have been edited for clarity.
Question: What specifically should be done to improve the condition of three open-classroom schools, Morningside, Conte and Crosby? Or, do you believe that new school buildings should be built instead of renovating the existing ones?
William Cameron: “I don’t believe that a decision can be made by the school committee about what to do with those schools, and about district programming on a much larger scale, without substantial input from the community is what’s needed. We have a school physical plan that was in place as a result of Proposition 2.5 40 years ago. The population has been cut in half at least. And so we need community input on how to use this as an opportunity to improve the district, not simply in terms of replacing one building with another.”
Mark Brazeau: “This is a community decision. This is something that’s going to involve everyone in the community coming together to think about exactly what needs to be done with our school buildings. I have said from the beginning that I do support modernization of our schools. ... It’s going to take the entire community together to figure out what we need to do with our school district.”
Vicky Smith: “I’ve been in those schools and I’ve talked to those teachers and they are so frustrated because they asked for years for upgrades. ... I just know that all my years as a teacher and principal, where there’s a will there’s a way.”
Question: Do we have too many school buildings? Do you believe that the current number of schools should be consolidated in the next five years?
Alison McGee: “We have the data to show that our population of students and class sizes have gone down, enrollment numbers continue to drop. But what I think that what we’re also seeing is that attentional skills, organizational skills and learning skills are also continuing to drop. So I think that ... we need to make sure its adaptive, and that it’s truly meeting student needs.”
Sara Hathaway: “You need community input. We need to understand the condition of those buildings. We can’t make a decisions until we have that.”
Daniel Elias: “All options have to be considered. Extensive community research and public input. ... It’s time for some kind of action and game plan going forward, and what that is has to be determined based on input we’re going to receive from the public.”
Question: Would you support making a complete renovation of Pittsfield High School the top priority for renovations supported by the state? Or should it wait until other schools are completed?
Bill Tyer: “We either have to fix it, we have to sell it, we have to do something with it; we have to come up with a plan, not just for PHS, for all schools.”
Question: Do you believe the superintendent process was conducted fairly, and do you agree with the decision?
Cameron: “There have been charges made that there was a lack of transparency; I don’t know where that lack of transparency was. There have been allegations that the person who was appointed superintendent had somehow gained an unfair advantage, that ‘the fix was in.’ I have no idea what anybody’s talking about there. The process worked the way it was supposed to.”
Brazeau: “I think the process was conducted fairly. [The search committee] brought forward the three candidates to us. I did very extensive research. ... I believe I made the right decision ... and I am glad that the person that I did pick for superintendent [Marisa Mendonsa] is coming in as deputy superintendent.”
Elias: “I think superintendent search was done very well... [Superintendent] Joe Curtis [has] 20 year service in our system, he earned it, he deserved it. The mistake we make sometimes is we think that the outside candidate has no faults, because we don’t know them.”
Question: Are we paying our teachers enough to retain them, or are we losing too many energetic, younger teachers to neighboring districts that can afford to pay better?
Smith: “When I was a principal I didn’t think I should make any more than the highest paid teachers... and I’ve worked in a district where the superintendent made one dollar for the year, because he had other sources of income... [Teachers perform] a very important job for our community; to show teachers that we appreciate the hard work they do, but we also want to give them the freedom as professionals to make more autonomous choices and to feel like they can master their own trade.”
Question: The Pittsfield Federation of School Employees had a standout in advance of the forum to press for a living wage. Without giving away negotiation strategies, how do you respond to their demands?
McGee: “What I’ve learned from the past two years is that our budget numbers are complicated, we’re in a complicated district. ... As a special education teacher I work frequently with paraprofessionals and I rely on them. ... Having well-trained, passionate, and content paraprofessionals is a huge part of being able to learn in any structured classroom. ... I think all members of the AFT are professionals, and if we are treating them as professionals and what we expect of them, we need to treat them as professionals in what we give back to them.”
Hathaway: “I was surprised that some of the hourly rates were so low. ... I think you made a great presentation, and I hope the new contract will reflect the great work you’re doing.”