PITTSFIELD — Colleagues and School Committee members bid emotional goodbyes Wednesday to their 7-year school chief, Jason “Jake” McCandless, then briefly turned their attention to the search for his successor.
The virtual meeting of the Pittsfield School Committee was the last for McCandless, who ends his tenure at the helm of the city’s school district Friday. McCandless will begin his new job as superintendent of Mount Greylock Regional School District on Monday.
Chairwoman Katherine Yon, a box of tissues nearby, read through a list of gratitude for McCandless, thanking him, among other things, for working on seven school budgets, helping Taconic High School get built, advocating for education funding reform and “keeping focused on the fact that we must always do what’s best for kids.”
McCandless built a great team of educators, she said, and listened to all who wished to air complaints. The mechanics of managing the county’s largest school district aside, Yon spoke of McCandless’ love of poetry and Five Guys, and how he’d respond to text messages with all the best memes.
“You became much more than Dr. McCandless the Superintendent, and I know that you wouldn’t have had it any other way,” she said. “So, my friend, good luck and Godspeed. You will be missed.”
Mayor Linda Tyer said McCandless leaves a lasting impression on everyone he meets. She prized McCandless’ loyalty to the city, where he continues to live, and said when things got tough she looked to McCandless for inspiration.
“I strive, Dr. McCandless, to emulate your outstanding character, empathy, humility, kindness, courage,” she said. “Everything that leadership is, you exude that.”
When committee member Mark Brazeau’s children were in school, he once emailed McCandless with concerns, then got a call back from the superintendent, who spent 45 minutes with him talking about the issues. “One word to describe Jake — humanity,” said Brazeau.
Member William Cameron called McCandless “just the sort of person you would want to take responsibility for the education of thousands of students and young people.”
McCandless led the Lee Public Schools before joining the district in 2013. While applying for the Pittsfield post, the candidate earned what committee member Daniel Elias termed an unbelievable amount praise from the Lee community.
“Every aspect of what they said was true,” he told McCandless.
Committee member Dennis Powell thanked him for his service to the district and to the youth he dedicated himself to helping.
The past seven years have not been easy ones, said Kristen Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance, but the district was fortunate to have a strong leader. Tammy Gage, assistant superintendent for college and career readiness, said McCandless’ words, actions and grace made colleagues feel understood and respected.
“For this we are better, and we will never forget,” said Gage.
Beginning Monday, Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis will take the post of interim superintendent. Curtis said as mentor, boss and friend, McCandless made tough decisions but was always guided by the interests of students, and also gave him a chance to step up to lead.
“Personally, he gave this single dad with three young children a chance to prove himself, and demonstrate that he could manage both,” said Curtis.
McCandless returned all the praise, saying that service on the School Committee demonstrates “what true community service is about.”
“As a parent and a resident and certainly as a leader,” he said, “I have nothing in me except gratitude.”
As it begins the hiring process for a district leader, Yon said the School Committee is looking for people to serve on a superintendent search committee. Once assembled, the panel will guide the process of finding candidates and winnowing the field with help from consultants from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
Those interested in serving on the search committee should email Yon (firstname.lastname@example.org) before Nov. 10 with their contact information. They should say why they want to serve on the committee and whether they’d serve as a parent, educator, administrator, student, member of the city’s arts or business community or another community. She said focus groups will be held to give the public opportunities to weigh in on the process.
There will be a special School Committee meeting devoted to the superintendent search Nov. 12, she said.
Also at Wednesday’s meeting, Pittsfield High School student Alexandra Swanson and Taconic High School student Benjamin Vengalil were honored by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents for academic excellence.
Behnke, the district’s assistant superintendent for business and finance, was recognized with the President’s Award from the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials.