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Pittsfield Councilors Say Superintendent Selection Sets City Back

By Brittany PolitoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Several city councilors are crying foul over a superintendent of schools search process that ended with the internal candidate being selected.
The School Committee had failed the city's students, they said, and "would move Pittsfield backward."
Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis, who has been leading the 5,000-student district since last fall, was chosen out four finalists on Wednesday with a majority vote of 4-3.
This prompted committee member Dennis Powell to publicly resign from the body, citing a lack of voice among his colleagues and a flawed process.
"It's unfortunate, and I really felt that at the beginning of this whole process, I could have wrote this ending, that's the way this whole process was run," Powell said to the committee on Wednesday before signing off the Zoom meeting.
On Thursday, Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey addressed those who voted for Curtis: Mayor Linda Tyer, Daniel Elias, William Cameron, and Chairwoman Katherine Yon, in a Facebook post stating that they had failed the district with their selection.
He referenced applicants Portia Bonner, who received one vote from Powell, and Marisa Mendonsa, who received a votes from members Alison McGee and Mark Brazeau. 
"You had an opportunity to move Pittsfield Public Schools in a direction that would have taken our school system into a new era of diversity, equity and inclusion. An era of forward-thinking, honest, adaptive leadership, that could have solidified our ability to provide a rewarding educational experience for all." Kavey wrote. "Throughout the interview process, Dr. Bonner and Ms. Mendonsa had shown a genuine commitment to their students, their staffs, and their communities. 
"Dr. Bonner was by far the most qualified candidate and would have been our first Black female superintendent. Ms. Mendonsa spoke of collaboration, growth, and development within the district and brought forth the big ideas we need, to navigate the challenges we will experience, reintegrating our students post-pandemic.
"Both candidates have proven track records of engaging the communities they've served to provide meaningful, innovative opportunities for success that meet the individual needs of students while understanding the complex evolution of the educational system. You chose the alternative. Your decision will move Pittsfield backward and be the reason we continue to see students and educators leave our district. We left the fate of our city's youth in your hands. You failed us."
Councilor at Large Earl Persip III and Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio seconded Kavey's sentiments over email.  
"I stand with the views of those members rather than the politically safe position and views of the Mayor and the three members who, in their mind going into this meeting we're going to pick Joe to lead a non-progressive or open-minded stance that we have come accustomed to in this Community, sacrificing our students and educators like we have always done," Maffuccio wrote. "This was the time to think outside the box and not be confined to promoting within."
Persip spoke iBerkshires on Friday about the situation where he made it clear that he wishes Curtis the best in his post but feels blindsided by the final decision. He feels the process was thorough in the beginning and then rushed at the very end.   
"I think the process was in-depth until the end, I think the end was sped through, we spent months and months of courting four final candidates and then we spent two days interviewing them and then we made a decision on the third day without getting any input from staff, or parents after watching the interviews, if they got to watch them live," he said.
"I think the process should have been brought down to the final two people, we should have given it another month because we spent so much time what's another month? What's another three weeks? What's another two weeks?"
With the interview process being aired on Pittsfield Community Television (PCTV) Monday and Tuesday and the new superintendent selected on Wednesday, Persip said it was nearly impossible for busy parents to provide feedback before the decision was made.
"We rushed it through in 72 hours, I think it was a mistake, no offense to Mr. Curtis," Persip said. "I'm not saying he can't do the job, or he won't be great at the job, I think I felt shortchanged, I felt we missed an opportunity to go in a different direction."
Because Curtis has been in the district for his whole career, Persip felt there is not much space for innovation because Curtis doesn't have an outside perspective from working in other communities.
"I remember Dr. McCandless at one time, as I was questioning him for something he said, 'the superintendent doesn't belong in the same district all the time, they have to go get a fresh perspective and move on,' and that's why he was eventually going to look for a new job and move on, you become stale in a certain place," he added.
He also spoke to the judgment that Bonner endured from the School Committee because of media publications from her previous positions that the committee found to be "red flags."
Bonner had been criticized for failures in communication with school committees and parents and district management in New Bedford and East HavenBonner does have her supporters who said tried to improve programs and establish initiatives despite pushback. 
"The first thing I started hearing about Dr. Bonner was negativity," Persip explained. "Do we like that agenda there towards a person of color which is what people of color deal with all the time? Because we don't know who's on the other end of that disagreement, we don't know what the disagreement was even about, right? They were already having negative connotations of a Black woman who basically stood up against the school committee. She's the educator. She's the one. So what was she standing up for? What were the disagreements about? We don't know."
Mayor Linda Tyer asserts that the School Committee and Superintendent Search Committee properly addressed the community during the selection process and strongly rejects the notion that it was "rigged" or "a done deal."
"I can say that without question from my perspective and from what I observed by my colleagues on the School Committee that each of us took it very seriously and as I mentioned in my comments during Wednesday night's meeting, there was a really broad cross-section of community engagement and hundreds of people participated in this process. And so I feel as though, you know, it was an open process with lots of opportunity for participation from a broad cross-section of community members,"  she told iBerkshires on Friday.
"I think we need to collectively as a community, take a deep breath and give everyone a chance to process the experience, and their reactions, and then work towards rebuilding these really important and necessary relationships. Because there isn't a single person among those four candidates or among anyone else who is solely by themselves, going to be able to transform our community culture."
Tyer, along with the rest of the School Committee, hopes that Powell reconsiders his decision to resign from the body and wants to continue collaboration with him.
"I am extremely sorry that Mr. Powell has made a decision to resign," she said. "and I hope that he will reconsider. I understand his frustration and disappointment and I am committed to continuing this work, even when we disagree."
School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said she was "stunned and disappointed" by Powell's decision to resign.
"I thought the process was fair and transparent. We had a search committee that was representative of many different  school and community stakeholders," Yon said. "They took on the task of reading resumes, letters of reference, personal statements, etc., to determine the finalists to send to the school committee. We then arranged for site visits to learn how well the candidates were viewed in their home districts."
She said there had been a great deal of information and she was "extremely impressed with the conscientiousness with which the school committee took on this task."
"As evidenced at the meeting, members were very clear as to why they chose a particular candidate," Yon said. "The process brought forth a candidate for appointment that was chosen only after much study and deliberation. It worked as it should have."


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