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Pittsfield School Committee Candidates Talk Retention, Budget, Safety in NAACP Forum
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:37PM / Wednesday, October 13, 2021
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Candidates for Pittsfield School Committee meet in a virtual forum hosted by the Berkshire NAACP.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Six of the eight candidates running for the Pittsfield Public School Committee participated in a forum held by the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP last week.

Common themes of debate included student retention, the school budget, student and parent engagement, and safety within the schools.

Most of the questions were answered with an overlapping consideration for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Incumbents William Cameron, Mark Brazeau, Alison McGee, and newcomers Vicky Smith, Sara Hathaway, and William Tyer participated in the forum moderated by Will Singleton.

Karen Reis Kaveney Murray and incumbent Daniel Elias were not present at the debate.

Two other candidates, Nyanna Slaughter and Kate Lauzon have indicated that they will no longer be running but their names will be on the ballot because the deadline has passed to withdraw.

Retention and the school committee budget

Brazeau identified student and staff retention as the largest challenge the district faces right now.

In order to alleviate the problem, he said, the School Committee needs to work with the City Council to find the funds to raise wages in the district.  

"There's been a pay gap in our country for a very long time and education is always the one that falls to the bottom of the barrel," he said. "It's time that we have to start stepping up and pay them what they deserve. The last 18 months in our district and in the entire world were crucial, and our teachers stepped up and did the work they needed to do to ensure that our students were OK."

In his opening statement, Brazeau said that if elected, one of his primary goals will be to advocate for higher pay to support staff and work on retention and recruitment into the district. This includes finding ways to "dramatically" increase pay scales while taking necessary steps to prevent educators from leaving.

While he acknowledges that the whole school budget is important, Brazeau later said the amount of administrative staff could be evaluated to see if there is an overflow in that department and if so, use the funds to increase pay elsewhere.

"Budget increases — budget increases need to go into staff," he added. "Need to go into support staff, into our lower-paying areas which are bus monitors or cafeteria workers or secretaries, the people that need to actually make a living wage and are not making a living wage at this point."

He said the district could also look at decreasing the number of schools to save money, citing the district's decrease from around 12,000 students to around 5,000.

Cameron said students districting out of Pittsfield schools is sometimes influenced by people with insufficient information making comments about the situation.

"There are a variety of reasons why people don't send their children to school in Pittsfield, or in other communities for that matter. Pittsfield does not stand out from the crowd in Berkshire County in terms of the percentages of kids going out of the district," he said.

"Actually, Berkshire Hills loses a greater percentage of its students to school choice, Lee does, Southern Berkshire does, North Adams does, Hoosac Valley does, they all lose a greater percentage of their students, but we have more students, and so our percentage is not as high as theirs. In some of the hilltowns, it's over 20 percent, but for us, we're losing a considerable number of kids, and the reasons vary."

Cameron suggested understanding the nature of the problem that fuels districting out and designing programming to address it.

He added that school choice in Pittsfield is "effectively white flight," meaning that the majority of white students are leaving the district. According to data from the Berkshire County Education Task Force, 78 percent of the students leaving the district are white whereas only 62 percent of the kids in the district are white.

"This is an issue that requires a great deal more discussion," Cameron said. "But I think programming and convincing people that the schools are in fact safe and orderly, those are the keys to bringing students back in or attracting students from outside the district."

In terms of a school budget centered around student improvement outcomes, in his view it is not where the cost centers are, but where the money is being expended in terms of the district's improvement plan.

Hathaway was queried on how to attract and retain teacher applicants, and especially applicants of color. She said that it is important to source from all kinds of different schools for recruitment and possibly persuade students who have not thought about a career in education to become teachers.

One of her suggestions, which she said she had regularly voiced in the comment section of a local newspaper, is to have a career ladder in Pittsfield that introduces high school-aged students to early childhood education.

She believes the schools have tried this idea out.

"If they don't become teachers, they'll still become better parents, because they'll understand how to raise their kids and to give their kids enrichment," the former mayor said.

"But if they do become teachers, we've got homegrown people with ties to the community, who may be more likely to make their career here, make their stand and one hopes that we can get those committed people from the community to bring their commitment to the schools as well."

In her opening statement, McGee acknowledged that she is coming from a place of privilege because of having easy access to education and it is her responsibility to advocate for people who do not have the same opportunities.

"I think that the terms equity diversity and transparency are used more frequently than they're truly honored and upheld," she said. "I see less transparency in politics, but I try to ask questions that encourage both the leaders and the public to recognize that things are unclear, I'm not a politician but I'm an educator and an advocate for those who are underrepresented."

Engagement and safety

Smith believes that increased student and parent engagement should be one of the key accomplishments of the School Committee.

"I see it starting in kindergarten because I was a kindergarten teacher if we're going to have engaged citizens that we would have opportunities in classrooms where the curriculum is not so prescribed that all the time is spent on figuring out what curriculum comes next," she said.

"That kids are learning in class meetings, and high schools have a genuine student government so that they can practice being citizens."

She hopes the district can find a way to have a lot more involvement from parents in genuine ways.

When asked what the schools can do to better prepare students to become engaged citizens, Cameron said it is important to give them a strong academic foundation and to place a strong emphasis on civics.

He cited the commonwealth's civics program that involves eighth and tenth-grade students and said that he believes the work should start before the eighth grade.

Tyer said the schools could use more communication with the parents, whether it be through large open meetings where they are invited to attend or regular phone calls.

He has found that a lot of parents just don't understand what is happening within the district and with the School Committee but it can be explained through simple communication.

"When we started the Youth Commission, we just put everybody in a room. We had older folks who were scared to death, to the young kids, the young kids who thought the folks don't know what you're talking about," Tyer said about a commission he served on that has been inactive since 2015.

"We put them in a room together, people with earrings and tattoos and little old ladies, and I'll tell you, it was the most breathtaking experience that I ever had, these people came together by the end of that meeting that first night."

As a former educator at Morningside Community School, McGee was asked what she would advocate for changes to the layout of Crosby Elementary School, Conte Community School, and Morningside.

She explained that the population of students that are housed at those schools is more susceptible to distraction and is not always supported by the physical layout of the schools.

"The two open classroom buildings do pose a problem, they're outdated, it's been brought up to us, many times, it also takes extensive work to change an address that," she said, pointing to Conte and Morningside's 1970s style open classroom plan.

"I think that we need to look at the learning environment that our students need, and what's going to promote the best learning in a really thoughtful way."

McGee said the aesthetics of the learning environments, the structure, and the tools that teachers need in order to support it need to be considered.

She added that because of Crosby's wide array of supportive programs, it is often seen as a place where students are sent when they can't succeed and that viewpoint needs to be changed to support all learners.

To address teacher and administrator burnout, Smith said there needs to be autonomy, recognition and support for each person to be and do their very best.

"I talked to a lot of teachers as I stopped in the schools, and I've talked to a lot of them that have left, and they're very very frustrated with the micromanagement and the feeling like they have no freedom to be their very best self," she said.

When queried about how to ensure the safety of teachers and students within the school, Tyer said it is involved with the engagement of students and parents.

Tyer believes that students resource officers are important to maintain safety within the schools.

"I may be wrong, but I think resource officers are in schools, not just to respond to issues, and not just to prevent an issue, but to build that community spirit with the police, with the schools and educators, and let's not forget the parents," he said.

"We need to engage parents to need to engage with their students and with their kids, and with their teachers, and bringing it back to the civil civics of schools."

He added that safety depends on engagement from everyone and better education.

In his rebuttal, Brazeau emphasized the need for student resource officers to be property trained and reflect the student body.

"When it comes to SRS, SRO is in our schools, our SRO is had to be properly trained, they need that very specific training to move forward in our schools and we cannot put any officers in our schools," he said. "Without this crucial training, moving forward, we also have to look at making sure that our SROs also reflect our student body moving forward."

Other topics

Hathaway was asked about how to address climate change within the school system.

She believes that the younger generation is anxious to know more about climate change so it would impactful to include it in the curriculum. She also mentioned evaluating the school bus fleet to see how they could minimize the burning of fossil fuels.

McGee and Tyer were asked what their responses are to the argument that making cannabis readily available in the community sends a dangerous message to students.

McGee said that if the schools are keeping with the idea of supporting students to make safe, smart decisions no matter what they are doing, the district is not sending a dangerous message.

"Providing a dangerous message would be to control what they're thinking, or to only present one side but if we're allowing them to be empowered enough to make a safe decision then we're setting them up for success," She added.

Tyer also believes that is important to teach students to make good decisions.

"I think we have to teach our kids, we have to teach them young that this is out there, you're going to be exposed to it," He said. "We can't stop that, but we can help you make better choices."

Tyer added that it doesn't have to be advertised that such substances are out there.

"I know it's a business but, you know, take it away from schools," he said.

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