Our Opinion: Big-picture analysis of Pittsfield's school needs

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The economic realities that have affected Pittsfield in recent years have impacted its public schools as well, and the solutions to the latter have, to an extent, come on a piecemeal basis. For that reason, Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless' advocacy of a comprehensive assessment of how the city's 12-school system can be restructured is welcome.

School officials told the School Committee on Wednesday night that the district is now serving 5,261 students under an arrangement designed for 12,000 students. Supt. McCandless added that the population in Pittsfield and Berkshire County is likely to continue to decline, according to projections from the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. "(Aging buildings, enrollment declines, central in Pittsfield schools' master planning process," Eagle, Jan. 24.)

While not doubting the validity of the BRPC's projections, The Eagle editorially has cited a number of methods, such as more aggressive marketing of the region's low housing costs and high quality of life, as well as growth of a solid base of small manufacturing, by which the city and county could stem the population decline. Many of these approaches are long term, however, and the Pittsfield school system is never going to come close to hosting 12,000 students again.

Supt. McCandless need not have been hesitant to say out loud Wednesday that "maybe eight elementary schools is too many" because that has been obvious for some time and city residents have not been reluctant to say so. The questions are, how many is the right number and how to determine which schools are closed. This process will be a painful one. Mayor Linda Tyer on Wednesday noted the disparity in facilities from neighborhood to neighborhood and acknowledged the related issue of schools appearing to be segregated by income level. This is not a situation unique to Pittsfield, as school officials around Massachusetts have expressed concern that schools are essentially becoming re-segregated, by income and also by race and ethnicity.

The superintendent said Wednesday that he would seek a consultant to evaluate the city's school buildings in terms of use of facilities, the status of buildings and structural disparities among schools. Consultants often come in for criticism, and not entirely without reason, but an objective baseline must be established for school officials to begin building a master plan. The public will also be heard from, although this is a more subjective process based, to a large degree, on parents and residents making the case for their neighborhood schools.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this process, many Pittsfield residents will be thrilled and many others will be angry. It is a necessary process, however, and one that should be comprehensive in nature. Pittsfield's educational challenges can't be addressed on the spot, as if they are broken pipes at Pittsfield High School. A plan that encompasses the big picture for the foreseeable future is the right way to go.

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