Aging buildings, enrollment decline central in Pittsfield schools' master planning process

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PITTSFIELD — In the face of aging school buildings and declining enrollment, school leaders in Pittsfield are seeking advice on how best to restructure the city's 12-school plant and reshape classrooms for the future.

Superintendent Jason McCandless said Wednesday that the district would put out a request for proposals by the end of the month for a consultant to evaluate the district's buildings to help assess deteriorating school buildings, inefficient use of facilities and concerning structural disparities among schools. Opinions on the path forward vary widely, McCandless said, and the professional consultants selected through the proposal process will help the district wade through layers of complexity.

McCandless said during Wednesday's School Committee meeting that he was hesitant to say it out loud, but "maybe eight elementary schools is too many." That said, the more appropriate layout remains elusive.

"Some number out there in space would make our schools look less segregated in some cases by income level," he said.

Mayor Linda Tyer said she has noticed the disparities in facilities from neighborhood to neighborhood.

"I'm really hoping that the School Committee and Dr. McCandless will move quickly on the public school master planning process so that we can really start to resolve these disparities in ways that will be meaningful to kids and families that need us the most in our city," she said during the meeting.

Among the core questions moving forward, McCandless said, is what volume of students creates the critical mass needed to sustain a school building? And at what point should the newly built Taconic High School become a vocational-only operation?

The current school arrangement was built for 12,000 students, officials said during the meeting. The district now has 5,261 students. And McCandless said enrollment will only continue to decline throughout the county, citing projections from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

McCandless said he aims to make the planning process a democratic one.

"My will will weigh fairly in this process," he said.

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School Committee member Dan Elias asked about school choice and how it factors into the conversation.

"It's always the specter that hangs over a gateway city district," McCandless said, referencing Pittsfield's stature among the state's most economically depressed communities.

The district loses students for a variety of reasons, McCandless said, and it can be difficult to draw in students from outside the district. Elsewhere in Berkshire County, families are used to smaller, less diverse schools.

"It's a tough sale sometimes," he said.

As for moving toward vocational-only at Taconic, McCandless said he believes there could be enough vocational students in Pittsfield alone to sustain the school. Assistant Superintendent Tammy Gage said the school had to turn away vocational students this year in favor of nonvocational ones.

The district also could consider bringing adult students into the vocational shops, McCandless said.

Vocational schools come with high equipment and materials costs, he said, so it's crucial that the district move forward with an economically sustainable model.

"Our community actually has seen what happens when your numbers go down to the point that there is simply not enough money to keep up with the equipment and materials needs " he said. "We've been there and done that and come out on the other side."

The work ahead looms large, McCandless said.

"We've got a lot ahead of us. A lot ahead of us."

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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