Pittsfield School Committee Candidates Weigh In On Issues
Six of seven candidates vying for 6 seats on the School Committee participated in a debate at BCC on Monday night.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Six of seven candidates running for six available seats on the city's School Committee made their case for election during a debate on Monday night.
Daniel Elias, an eight-term incumbent and current vice chairman, and Katherine Yon, current secretary, along with newcomers Joshua Cutler, Pamela Farron, Anthony Riello and Cindy Taylor, outlined their perspectives on a few of the district's challenges and the past and future performance of its governing committee during the sole debate for this race.
An atmosphere of cordiality, full of compliments and points of enthusiastic agreements, between candidates prevailed throughout the one-hour forum, sponsored by the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television as part of a series of election debates at Berkshire Community College.
Candidates expressed unanimity on the importance of maintaining two high schools, with the hope that state funding will allow either renovation or replacement of the current Taconic High building with a more advanced technical vocational school. Elias said he had made a "list of 50 reasons" not to reduce to one high school, and Yon said efforts by comparable communities to consolidate to one larger school had proved "disastrous."
Farron agreed that "now is definitely the time to move forward" with the project, though she expressed concerns about whether all 15 of the vocational programs proposed by the school department will be approved by state school building authorities. Riello also favors a new "state of the art" Taconic, lauding the work done by the School Building Needs Commission; Cutler echoed the sentiments for two separate high schools, placing emphasis, however, on the committee's "fiduciary responsibility" to residents that will be still have to shoulder the approximately one fifth of the cost not reimbursed by the state.
A greater diversity of approaches was offered to the problem of students being lost to other school districts through the school-choice option.
"We need to sell our own product," Elias said, suggesting renewed public relations efforts and noting that the only previous spike in student retention had been correlated with an increased publicity campaign pushing Pittsfield school offerings.
Yon chalked a majority of the problem up to "false perception," and suggested that implementing some type of survey paperwork for families leaving a district school might help Pittsfield schools address their issues. "If you could have that one conversation ... it makes a huge difference."
"We really need to have to focus on the core of what we do, and we need to cater to what people want," said Cutler, recommending strengthening core curriculum and expanding special offerings such as vocational offerings and advanced placement courses.
Farron stressed a need to emphasize new educational innovations and grant programs being implemented, "There's so much that Pittsfield schools are already doing."
"People leave for the same reasons they come here. Quality instruction is a big reason why people leave and its also a big reason why people come in," said Taylor, who said they also need to be aware of larger patterns and population shifts that will affect school choice in the future.
A number of responses addressed the nature of the committee's working relationships, both internally and with other parts of city government.
"There are some problems for sure. It is dysfunctional," said Farron in regard to some recent operations of the current body, but praised the level of effort she had seen from all the members.
Riello and Taylor refrained from criticism of the current committee, but expressed optimism in the ability of the committee to work together on common goals going forward.
"I feel that over the last couple of years there's been too much focus on minutiae, and less focus on what actually needs to get done," said Cutler, who said his organizational background and leadership qualities would aid in this.
"I can get along with everyone," said Elias, "You can disagree, and have a heated discussion, and then afterward shake hands and go home."
"Nobody should be allowed to be disrespectful," Yon commented on recent differences of opinion. "I think one of my strengths is making sure everyone behaves in a civil manner."
A seventh candidate on the ballot, Brittany Douglas, did not attend the event. Pittsfield Community Television staff indicated they had received no communication about the absence from Douglas, who also has not accepted an invitation to record a free candidate statement for airing on the station.