Our Opinion: Pittsfield schools face yet another obstacle

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"We've got to get on top of this."

That concern expressed Monday by Pittsfield School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon reflects the anxieties of countless educators and families across the city. The district, like many others, is dealing with the daunting task of charting a return to schooling amid the coronavirus crisis. Now, with Pittsfield Superintendent Jason McCandless' announcement that he has accepted a new job leading Mount Greylock Regional School District, the city's schools stare down a leadership shakeup in the face of unprecedented uncertainty and a fast-approaching academic year.

Mr. McCandless, whose stalwart leadership has led Pittsfield Public Schools for seven years, has expressed an interest to serve the later years of his career at a smaller school system. He saw this opportunity in the superintendent job opening at Mount Greylock, and the regional district serving Lanesborough and Williamstown is fortunate to be getting a proven leader in a time that demands one as schools face towering structural difficulties.

What's unfortunate, however, is that Mount Greylock's gain in this instance is Pittsfield's loss. In his tenure as the city's superintendent, Mr. McCandless has kept a steady hand on the rudder of a district facing myriad challenges in recent years. Now, as the waters grow turbulent for schools struggling with the most basic questions of how to educate children in a protracted pandemic, that steady hand will be sorely missed. In fairness to Mr. McCandless, his desire to transition into a smaller district is older than the outbreak, and the job at Mount Greylock allows him to realize this goal without significantly uprooting his family. Still, even he acknowledged the timing as "abysmal" in remarks to The Eagle on Friday after accepting the new job.

As of Monday, Mr. McCandless had not yet officially submitted his resignation, according to Ms. Yon. On Thursday night, the Pittsfield School Committee faces a tough vote on whether to commit fully to remote learning for the start of school or attempt a "hybrid" model that would see students attend school in-person on staggered schedules in combination with remote learning. Also on the committee's plate is whether to hold the outgoing superintendent to a clause in his contract that requires him to stay on for 90 days after submitting his resignation. Mr. McCandless, for his part, hopes to get started at his new job at Mount Greylock "as soon as possible."

This is understandable, but, while there is no "good" time for this transition to occur in the near future, there are certainly better or worse times for it, the effects of which will be felt by Pittsfield's students and teachers alike. If Mr. McCandless were to submit his resignation soon and the school board were to hold him to the 90-day clause, this would hopefully keep district leadership intact long enough to see schools settle into the new normal such as they're able. An interim could take over in a less-hectic time, and the search for a permanent replacement would have a bit more cushion. Conversely, if the School Committee does not enforce the 90-day clause and the transition were to occur before or during the rollout of an untested model of schooling, it could multiply the districts' already towering obstacles. To prevent this, we urge the School Committee to hold Mr. McCandless to the aforementioned clause to limit the strain from this changeover on the city's families and educators.

This should not be construed as a call to punish Mr. McCandless simply for pursuing career goals about which he has long been transparent. The School Committee should enforce the clause at least until the district has fully devised and implemented a solid plan for returning to schooling. Then, if all parties agree, the board could cede the balance of the 90 days to Mr. McCandless so as to not hamper the transition for him or Mount Greylock more than necessary.

In the face of such historic challenges, however, it first behooves district leadership to not let Pittsfield's schools fall through the cracks of this transition.

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