School retention front and center in Pittsfield mayoral debate

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PITTSFIELD — Both mayoral candidates pointed to problems with retaining students and staff in city schools during a debate on Tuesday, but they disagreed about how it should be addressed.

Mayor Linda Tyer and her challenger, Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo, squared off in the library of Pittsfield High School during the second one-on-one debate of the season. Brendan Sheran, vice principal of teaching and learning at the school, moderated the debate.

The Nov. 5 election is just three weeks away.

Students facing trauma was also a main topic of the night. Reid Middle School Vice Principal Dennis Carr said children are increasingly coming into classrooms with social and emotional burdens that stem from joblessness and drug addiction in the family.

"How would you help the district deal with these issues?" he asked.

Mazzeo said she would make sure each school has enough adjustment counselors to go around, while Tyer stressed the importance of keeping class sizes low and bolstering early education programs.

At the start of the debate, Mazzeo told the audience to watch for words from Tyer like "vibrant" and "world class."

"Is she speaking to the truth of what's happening in our schools?" she asked.

Tyer said the path forward for the city's schools is in acknowledging strengths and facing the weaknesses.

"We just need to tackle our challenges head on, but also celebrate the things that make our schools special," she said.

Mazzeo said she knows there's more than "doom and gloom" happening in the city's schools, but it's also "not all unicorns and fairies."

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"We have unbelievable educators ," Mazzeo said. "At the same time, we need to face reality. Our schools are in a crisis."

She said 75 teachers have left the district in recent years, and she flagged an exodus at the middle school level as families often send their children out of district.

Tyer said comparatively lower salaries play a big role in the district's problem recruiting and retaining staff. Mazzeo has repeatedly voted against salary increases for city employees.

"We've got to be more competitive with salaries," Tyer said.

But Mazzeo said she thought retention issues had more to do with the behavioral issues going on in the schools and the safety issues they pose. She said restorative justice practices have created "a culture of leniency."

"I think we're seeing teachers leaving this district because they're not feeling safe, they're not feeling heard," she said.

Asked about how Tyer aims to use increasing state reimbursements for city schools, Tyer said "every dollar should go into the classroom." She said her opponent hasn't always supported school funding, noting a time when Mazzeo voted in favor of cutting the school budget by $200,000.

Mazzeo responded by saying "maybe we need to be a little bit more specific" about what exactly that vote was about, saying that without those details they might as well have been talking about spending too much on toilet paper.

At the close of the debate, Tyer circled back to an earlier jab.

"I actually think that I got through the debate without saying `dynamic' or `vibrant,'" she said to applause.

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


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