|Pittsfield Schools Considering Future Consolidations|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
04:14AM / Monday, June 18, 2018
|Pittsfield High School is the most likely to see consolidation.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The most recent high water mark for enrollment in the Pittsfield Public Schools was 7,000 students in 1996.
That number is down to 5,491. Schools like Morningside had 658 students then and now have just 374. Conte had 540 and now has 367. Reid Middle School had 803 students compared to 552 today.
"We are 1,500 students lighter than we were in '96 and '97," Superintendent Jason McCandless said.
The numbers raise a pretty basic question: Does the city need to have so many individual schools? The district has 12 schools to support 5,491 students. Is it time to consolidate?
"I would say at this point, no. Now is not the time," McCandless said.
While the numbers have dropped, McCandless said the space needs of the city's children has increased. In 1996, 18.2 percent of the population was in special education classrooms. That is now up to 22.2 percent. The percentage of low-income students is up to 51.7 percent from its 1996 rate of 28.5 percent.
As those populations increase, there is a higher need for more adults and space in the schools. Many of the students have such provisions as 504 education plans, which set certain requirements for providing one-on-one time with students.
But the superintendent said he has been routinely going through the exercise of how a consolidation might be done because the numbers, which mirror trends throughout the county, show that the tipping point could be soon as the population continues to decline.
One hypothetical would be to close Stearns or Capeless schools, sending the 245 or 220 pupils, respectively, to Morningside. But McCandless said both Stearns and Capeless have become integral aspects of those neighborhoods. They are less attended but even merging one of them with Morningside would make it too cramped.
He added that Stearns and Capeless are also two of the district's top-performing schools. He believes that immediately after closing either one, there'd be an increase in parents choosing to school-choice their children to other districts.
"I would suggest the high schools are closer to real consolidation," McCandless said.
Pittsfield High School has 77 fewer students than it did in 1996. Enrollment is at 857 while Taconic has 735 students — which appears to show an increase over recent years although the school's enrollment topped 1,000 at the turn of the century. Together that still makes a population of 1,592, down from 2,030, or nearly 20 percent, from 1996.
The conversation about consolidating into one high school isn't new. It was fiercely debated about a decade ago and ultimately city and school officials rejected the idea. Instead, a new Taconic High School is being built with a capacity of 920 students — still not large enough to fit the current enrollment — and the incoming freshman class is the largest in years with 225 students enrolled.
McCandless said the demand for the new school has been high and, at this point, the district doesn't even have the staffing to fully run the school for projected enrollment. Each year, providing the freshman classes remain around the same level, the district will have add staffing to Taconic to manage it properly.
The building was designed to more easily put on an addition. The new building has specific areas on the upper level to connect walkways from the new building over the driveway to another new structure where the current school stands. That, however, would also require another capital project.
The superintendent said he understands that the city is taking on a number of capital projects — just finishing the $120.8 million Taconic, a pending $74 million upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, and then similar upgrades to the water plant. But he doesn't want to discount a building project just yet.
The Massachusetts School Building Authority had rated all of the school buildings in terms of general condition. Crosby, for example, is in the worst condition. But, Crosby is also deeded to the land to operate as a school. The city can't simply shed the school in the worst condition. Stearns, with the second smallest enrollment, is rated to be in one of the best conditions.
McCandless presented a few potential options to the School Committee:
• Reid could be transformed into a Grade 6 and 7 academy, Herberg for Grades 8 and 9, and have all Grades 10-12 at Taconic.
• All elementary schools could go to K-6, make Herberg a Grade 7 and 8 academy, Reid a standalone Grade 9 academy, and all Grades 10-12 at Taconic.
• Construct a new Conte/Crosby school at the Crosby site and construct a new Allendale/Morningside on the Allendale site.
• Construct a new addition to Taconic and expand enrollment.
McCandless voiced particular favor for creating a ninth-grade academy. He said the majority of adjustment and behavioral problems any high school tends to have come from the Grade 9 age group. He said Grade 9 academies have been effective elsewhere.
The superintendent is now looking to pass the considerations onto the School Building Needs Commission. The district has performed two studies on the buildings and enrollment trends to start the conversation.
The advantage of closing a school is the potential overhead cost savings. But at the same time, the population loss throughout the county has led to concerns of long-term sustainability for the entire district.
Pittsfield has a large enough pool of students to continue to provide a robust set of course offerings and programs — from vocational to foreign languages to arts to Advanced Placement. But, in smaller towns, those programs are increasingly threatened by the declining enrollment numbers.
The Berkshire Educational Task Force recently provided a recommendation that all of the districts could regionalize into one. That would provide the flexibility for a greater organization of the programs to provide for a greater population. Instead of each district attempting to provide a certain program, there could be regional programs.
City Councilor John Krol said characterized the current set up as being one with too many administrators. He said every district in the county is paying for their own administrations and in aggregate, much of that could be saved by streamlining that into few districts — and thus putting more money into the programming that many communities are struggling to maintain.