PITTSFIELD — The dust has yet to settle on the School Committee’s fractious decision to install the interim superintendent as permanent schools chief.
Pittsfield’s mayor is rebutting a claim that the fix was in for Joseph Curtis, who is defending the search process. Meanwhile, School Committee member Dennis Powell, who resigned after Curtis was chosen in a 4-3 vote, says he plans to provide evidence that the process wasn’t fair.
And a member of the City Council weighed in Thursday, also taking aim at the committee’s decision, calling it a step “backwards.”
Powell argues that Pittsfield needed an external candidate with wider experience and new ideas to bring change. School Committee members who voted for Curtis — the former deputy superintendent and former Morningside Community School principal — expressed confidence in his abilities as a leader.
Powell said at the committee’s Zoom meeting Wednesday that change “comes from individuals who have experienced different situations, different circumstances. They bring different experiences, [and] we have not had the advantage of someone coming into our community with new ideas.”
The vote result favored the insider, however.
Member Bill Cameron said during the meeting Wednesday that Curtis has “successful instructional and management experience at all levels of this district” and is “deeply familiar with the community.”
“Mr. Curtis has proven his leadership of the district under [what] probably is the most difficult time I ... have ever seen,” said Cameron, referencing Curtis’ time as a leader during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But, Powell on Thursday accused the School Committee of ignoring “all the negatives” about the internal candidate, whom he said had not been expected to seek the top district job on a permanent basis after Jason “Jake” McCandless announced plans to move to another district.
And when Curtis did apply, Powell said the search committee tasked with whittling down the field of applicants and forwarding finalists to the School Committee should have been amended. Having several members who work at the district under Curtis on that panel posed a conflict, Powell said.
“That’s why I say the whole thing was rigged because they wanted to make sure that his name got moved forward. He was in the final category, because they knew they had the votes in advance, to make him the superintendent,” said Powell. “This whole thing was planned out.”
Curtis told The Eagle Thursday that he “never made a statement declaring whether I would apply” for the position before he submitted his application Feb. 5.
That was two days before the search committee, made up of two dozen people, began reviewing the candidates applications Feb. 7.
Curtis, who the School Committee named interim superintendent in November, denied having been urged to apply by any member of the School Committee. He said he took time “over a course of months” to come to a decision about putting his application in for consideration.
“I did the responsible thing, I believe, and really took time over a course of months, then made a final commitment to put my application package in. I stuck with that commitment throughout the entire process, and I would hope that any candidate for a position at this level would do the same,” he said.
Mayor Linda Tyer on Thursday dismissed the claim by Powell that Curtis was given preference in the process.
“I resoundingly, adamantly reject the claim that this was a rigged process and done deal,” she said.
Curtis emerged as her top pick, Tyer said, in part because of his experience leading the district during the pandemic puts him in a strong position to continue steering Pittsfield schools through the recovery.
She also said Curtis’ recent budget proposal “includes significant investments in social emotional learning,” and the “bold proposal” to expand prekindergarten services into every elementary school.
“That’s the sort of thing that to me demonstrates that he’s a champion of kids, and wants all kids to succeed,” she said. Tyer also said she admires Curtis’ demonstrated commitment to the district. “He has been dedicated and devoted to the Pittsfield Public Schools for his entire career,” she said.
Tyer lamented an “unfair mischaracterization” that says the district has not made progress on diversity and equity issues.
Three of the other finalists were better suited for the job, said Powell. He accused the committee’s search consultant, the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, of failing to inform the School Committee of information that explained bad newspaper coverage in previous districts of finalist Portia Bonner, whom he said had the most professional and academic experience for the job.
Bonner did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment on her candidacy.
“Everybody wants to say, ‘Well, because I’m Black, I’m voting for Bonner.’ No, I’m voting for Bonner because she was the most qualified, who just happens to be Black and female,” Powell said.
Also Thursday, Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey sent an email to the School Committee, addressing the members who voted for Curtis, saying they missed an “an opportunity to move Pittsfield Public Schools in a direction that would have taken our school system into a new era of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Kavey said Bonner and Marisa Mendonsa — a finalist and current principal whom the committee liked but who members viewed as not ready for the job yet — “have proven track records of engaging the communities they’ve served to provide meaningful, innovative opportunities for success.”
“You chose the alternative. Your decision will move Pittsfield backwards and be the reason we continue to see students and educators leave our district. We left the fate of our city’s youth in your hands,” wrote Kavey. “You failed us.”
Curtis and Tyer told The Eagle they hoped Powell would reconsider and stay on the committee. Asked Thursday whether he would, Powell suggested that is unlikely.
Instead, he is preparing to present more information about what he feels went wrong with the superintendent search process.
“I made the decision so I could let the community know what is really going on,” he said of his resignation. “Being a member of that School Committee, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”