When veteran education leader William J. “Bill” Cameron, Jr., was approached in October 2019 to lead the Lenox Public Schools as interim superintendent, he did not expect the assignment would continue until last Thursday.
But a failed superintendent search and the 16-month COVID-19 pandemic ordeal prolonged his tenure. Cameron also continues to chair the Berkshire County Education Task Force and remains an elected member of the Pittsfield School Committee.
Cameron had retired in 2014 as superintendent of the Central Berkshire Regional School District. His previous positions included assistant superintendent for personnel and negotiations for the Pittsfield Public Schools, superintendent of schools in Salem, and more recently interim superintendent for Shaker Mountain School Union 70 (Hancock, New Ashford and Richmond).
During a wide-ranging conversation shortly before his departure, Cameron shared his thoughts on issues not only facing Lenox, but also Pittsfield and the entire county. Excerpts follow, edited for length.
Q: Looking back at your 20-month tenure, most of it consumed by coping with the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the school district, are there things you wish could have been handled differently?
A: It took me a good while to understand the relationship between COVID-19 and school attendance, the assumption that many people made, myself included, that if in fact you have a high infection rate in the community, the schools should be closed on the assumption that the schools would reflect what was going on in the larger community. By talking with doctors in this region, I’ve learned that correlation was not really a very sound one. What we should have acted on right along was the infection rate in school and the in-school transmission rate. Had we done that earlier, we might have been better off in keeping schools open for a longer period of time. Because of the combination of measures (distancing, masking, hand sanitation, no students eating in school), the schools were quite a safe place, and we were very fortunate that turned out to be so. That’s the main thing I wish I had realized earlier.
Q: There were many families who opted for remote learning. That must have made navigating the pandemic even more complicated.
A: It did make it complicated, but some people will disagree with this — the hybrid model we adopted was the best of a poor lot, all of them were disruptive and created problems for families with child care. That said, the advantage of the model we adopted was that kids who wanted to be in school, and parents who wanted their kids in school, could be there almost every day, even if it was for an abbreviated time.
Q: What are the highest-priority issues facing the new superintendent, Marc Gosselin, who started July 1?
A: I don’t want to set an agenda for him. I know there will be continuing issues in Lenox about the diversity of the student body, the workforce in the schools and the way children who are not “typical Lenox students” are received and how they fare. There are not a lot of students from racial and other identifiable minority groups in Lenox at school, but there are some kids and they deserve the same rights, respect and opportunities that any other students have. Marc is well-positioned to deal with these issues because of his background in Pennsylvania, which was one of the things that made him attractive to the interview committee. Over the past five or six weeks, I’ve tried to bring him into as much that we were doing as I can so he won’t appear as a stranger, he’ll know the administrators and the issues. He’s a very bright, capable person and Lenox is very lucky to get him.
Q: What about the bubble of concern here that the Lenox school budget devotes too high a percentage to personnel costs?
A: The school budget reflects the same proportion of salary to non-salary costs here as it does every place else I’ve worked, it’s always between 80 and 85 percent. I don’t think the criticisms of that percentage are well-informed. Nothing’s out of whack with other school districts. If people are complaining about how much the schools cost, period, that’s a completely different matter. Pittsfield receives well over 50 percent of its school funding from [state aid] Chapter 70. Lenox is nowhere near that, nor should it be, because it’s a far wealthier community than Pittsfield is. Historically, Lenox and other towns like it have placed an enormous premium on the public school system that they have. They have the wherewithal to provide amply for the schools, they do it, and that makes it an attractive place for people who want their children educated. You start attacking the school budgeting, what you’re saying is, there may not be community support for the schools. For many years, that was a problem in Pittsfield. I’ve heard anecdotally that this had an adverse effect on economic development because the City Council was screaming that the schools were spending too much money. I hope that doesn’t happen here [in Lenox]. It’s pretty obvious that towns that actively support their schools are far better off as a resource in the community.
Next weekend: Cameron’s thoughts on MCAS and other standardized tests, the impact of school choice on Pittsfield, Lenox and other districts, and the prospects for collaboration among the county’s school districts.