Contenders make case for Pittsfield School Committee

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PITTSFIELD — From declining enrollment to staff retention and facilities issues, the district has serious decisions on its plate.

As it faces them in the years ahead, they'll do so with the support of six of the seven School Committee candidates who participated in a Monday debate in Berkshire Community College's Connector Building. Voters will be asked to choose their top six among the choices during the city election on Nov. 5.

The choices include Bill Cameron, an incumbent member of the committee and a longtime local administrator; Kathy Yon, a 10-year committee member and current chairwoman; Dennis Powell, an incumbent School Committee member who also serves as president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP; Alison McGee, a sixth grade special education teacher at Monument Valley Regional Middle School; Dan Elias, a longtime School Committee member and athletic coach; Tom Perrea, a retired financial advisor who previously served on the School Committee; and Mark Brazeau, a parent who would like to see more life skills taught in city classrooms.

The debate was sponsored by BCC, the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television, which televised the event. Shawn Serre, the executive director for PCTV, moderated the event.

Serre tossed hard-hitting questions throughout the evening, touching on topics like the push to consolidate the county's districts into one, student retention issues surrounding school choice and the recent expansion of the district's alternative education program.

Brazeau said the county's school leaders should join to form a steering committee as a way to tackle educational issues from a united front.

Cameron, chairman of the Berkshire County Education Task Force, said school consolidation could not be achieved without first clearing serious political hurdles. Still, he said "it's the only way" that the county can provide high-quality education to students down the road.

"This is a long-term aspirational goal," he said.

To that last point, Yon agreed.

"I think it's going to take a long time for Berkshire County to get there," she said, suggesting the neighboring districts start first with shared services. "I think you have to begin slowly."

Elias said he didn't think consolidating into one countywide district is a feasible option, but "we might not have a choice at some point."

Serre asked what candidates think should be done to address the district losing students to school choice.

Powell said the city has to address that issue by retaining quality in the classrooms, and that comes through wages. Elias, too, said the city needs to spend more for educational salaries. Pittsfield previously had gained middle ground when it came to comparative salaries, but he said "we've regressed, now."

McGee said the district should also work to educate families about the benefits of placing higher-achieving students in diverse districts, where they can share their talents with their peers.

Elias and Cameron said it's important to debunk misconceptions about what is happening within the city's schools. "The open houses are a good step," Elias said.

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Another way to battle the perception of Pittsfield schools as disorderly would be to launch a baccalaureate program in the city's high schools, Cameron said.

McGee said it would benefit the whole community to enhance the district's after-school offerings.

"Children with unstructured time will get unruly," she said.

Most agreed that the city should continue to maintain its own school bus fleet rather than contract out for those services. Perrea said that the committee studied the issue when he served on it previously and all the information pointed to keeping the fleet.

"If we could save money, perhaps we should privatize. I don't think that would be the case, though," he said.

Brazeau said, too, that retaining the fleet means keeping city jobs. He said he'd also like to see the city create more fleet-related jobs by hiring monitors for every school bus.

In response to a question about the alternative education program expansion, Yon said the alternative education expansion was a good investment. She said these programs serve students who might need to learn in different ways.

In an alternative setting, she said, "You're able to vary your schedule, you're able to deal with more individualized learning."

McGee said she, too, is a fan of alternative education, though she stressed the importance of hiring the right people to staff it, and in providing structured goals for its students.

Powell said alternative education serves an important role in the district, but he is also keen on keeping a close eye on the equality of the situation.

"I also want to make sure that the quality of education that students who are sent into this alternative arena is the same that students are getting in public schools," he said.

All agreed that there needs to be more diversity among the city's teaching staff.

Powell said involving more staff in the hiring process beyond the principal is the key to addressing the issue.

"Right now teachers are hired solely by principals, period ," he said. "Until we can change that scenario it's going to be very difficult to have true diversity."

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


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