|Pittsfield School Committee Calls for Shorter-Term Maintenance Solutions|
|By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff |
05:41AM / Monday, October 02, 2023
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School Committee members want to see shorter-range planning to address the condition of Pittsfield Public Schools.
Earlier this month, there were complaints of excessive heat in the some of district's classrooms and calls for the immediate implementation of air conditioning. Around this time, it occurred to Chair William Cameron that there is no plan for the maintenance and upgrading of school facilities, as it is done on an as-needed basis.
PPS is currently undergoing a restructuring study to address its educational and physical structure.
"The municipality for whatever reason has not, I think, addressed the problem of the condition of our schools," he said. "And of course, now we're engaged with the municipality in rethinking the organization of the school district and so that's what I wanted to initiate is a discussion of what we should be doing as a community about the condition of our schools."
During the winter months, Superintendent Joseph Curtis is ready every day by 5 a.m.
"And the reason for that is because I'm waiting for a call that one of our boilers doesn't start and I know that I have to be ready by that time to be able to prepare to call off school maybe for a building or two,” he explained.
"And we have come very close to doing that I couldn't count on two hands."
He credited the city's director of building maintenance and custodial director's hard work and said it is not a reflection of their work. There is no physical plant manager dedicated solely to these issues.
Curtis said he would, certainly desire, as the superintendent to not have to worry about physical plant maintenance at all but it is a constant reality, even in the warmer months.
"I look forward to the results of the restructuring study because they are doing an analysis on every one of our buildings," he added.
"Because one of the real implications is if we redistrict or restructure or build a new building, we have to be able to ensure that the remaining facilities are up to par and functioning as they should."
Committee members expressed urgency to address pressing issues such as temperature control.
"Those immediate concerns were definitely taken into the larger plan, but they are immediate concerns, I think, for a reason," Alison McGee said. "And I know we don't have much longer with excessive heat from outside but the winter it's been a significant problem in some of the schools with the heaters overheating."
She pointed out that temperature discomfort can increase students' irritability if they have pre-existing factors and weak coping skills.
"I do think if there are things that are causing significant disruptions to learning that is our concern and then we need to work as a group to all address that because it is expensive," she said.
Mark Brazeau said the district has a great strategic plan but there are concerns that have immediate effects on students and staff.
"I think that's something that needs to be brought up at the municipal side of things where this has to be rectified immediately, especially going into the winter months," he said.
"We can't wait for a strategic plan and wait for this whole thing to happen. This is something that needs to be done now and there are ways to come up with this money because we do have this money. People say we don't we do have money to fix this kind of thing. So this is something that, to me, is not excusable and it's something that should be fixed. We should have efficient systems in all of our schools and municipal buildings. That's it."
Brazeau also emphasized the importance of staffing.
"How are we expected to keep up on our maintenance in the schools and municipal buildings when we have such limited staff, whether it comes to medians or whatever else we're talking about in the news?" he said.
"We have to look at our budget and look at hiring some people to actually get this stuff done."
Vicky Smith added that there is often a perception that there is not the money to fix schools. One of the districts she previously worked for reportedly added pennies to the local sales tax and was able to build new facilities.
"Kids are worth it," she said. "This is an important investment in our future."
Curtis said he wishes he could add a penny to city taxes but that is not under his purview or the school department's in any way.
"The reason I bring awareness to the cost is I want to be sure that we are aware of the commitments that we're projecting," he said, pointing to the lively discussion about raised water rates and the funds needed for would well exceed that hike.
He asked that all community members stay informed on the restructuring study.
Daniel Elias suggested factoring the cost savings of possible outcomes to the study such as reducing the number of schools or restricting. He said it has to be a part of the discussion to make it well-rounded.
"Their demands I feel are correct. I agree with them in every way but that will require sacrifice in some way. Either higher taxes or reduction in other ways or closing some facilities, whatever it might be," Curtis said.
"Because I would assume the city, and I don't know I can't speak to it, I'm certainly not that expert, doesn't have hundreds of millions of dollars on hand so there will have to be a plan. There will have to be a well-thought-out plan and elected officials that commit to that and that's my myself speaking as a superintendent wishing for the day where I don't have to worry, the principals don't have to worry, the teachers don't have to worry, the students don't have to worry about the physical plant that they're in on a daily basis."
Sara Hathaway said the district has to find a way to solve problems and let people know they are "on the list" for improvements.
"I'm sure the superintendent would love it if he could have a penny on the sales tax that would pay for new buildings but we are very dependent on the state when it comes to major construction projects, major renovations, or new buildings," she said, reflecting on her time working for then state Senator Andrea Nuciforo before the Massachusetts School Building Authority's predecessor when it simply had a list of projects without a strategic selection process.
She commented that it used to be easier to get money from the state but a fair prioritization process is important.
"We don't want just a political decision. We want someone to evaluate where's the greatest need, how much is it going to cost, what's a fair price," Hathaway said.
"And to help make sure that the taxpayers' money is being spent wisely and fairly so we live with those rules at the state level but we still have these needs that are very real."
Curtis pointed to the projects that Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke financed largely through "give backs" left at the end of the fiscal year including the replacement of the ceilings at Morningside and Conte Community Schools and new shades at Crosby Elementary.
She explained that when the district looks at its budget in the springtime and has unspent monies, these are the types of projects that they are put into. Maintenance is not a part of the district's regular budget but it gets capital budget requests.
"There are a lot of requests, there's a lot of maintenance that needs to happen and based on staffing and based on the timing of things coming in and based on the city maintenance budget, it doesn't always happen at the pace that we're hoping it would happen," Behnke said.