Candidates Tackle Issues at Pittsfield School Committee Debate
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Seven candidates running for the School Committee debated in person for the first time on Monday.
The forum was held by Pittsfield Community Television in partnership with iBerkshires at the Berkshire Atheneum and was moderated by PCTV's Coordinator of Advancement and Community Production Bob Heck.
It is the second in a series of three debates that began on Thursday with eight City Council candidates running for the four contested wards and will end on Tuesday with the six at-large council candidates.
William Cameron, Mark Brazeau, Vicky Smith, Alison McGee, Sara Hathaway, Daniel Elias, and William Tyer covered a number of topics ranging from staff wages and building improvements to Taconic High School's mascot change and the recent superintendent selection process.
There are eight candidates looking to fill the six seats on the School Committee this year. Karen Reis Kaveney Murray was not able to attend the forum.
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.
Of the eight candidates still running, half of them are incumbents seeking re-election: William Cameron, Mark Brazeau, Alison McGee, and Daniel Elias.
Disagreements occurred Monday when the candidates were asked if Taconic High School's mascot should be changed. The School Committee voted in August 2020 to change the 50-year-old team mascot, the Braves, and begin the process of finding a new, more culturally acceptable identity for the school.
Elias was the lone vote in opposition to changing it, feeling that it is presented in a respectful way that honors Native Americans and that it also represents history.
Though he does not respect the change, Elias said choosing a new mascot has to be a community effort.
At the debate, Tyer agreed with Elias and thought the focus on it misplaced.
"I wouldn't have changed in the first place," he said. "I just think there are so many other issues that we can be talking about, talking about living wages, or talking about supporting parents. Why are we wasting time on this? I just think personally, it's a waste of time, I think they never should have, they didn't have a good reason to in my opinion."
Cameron asserted that it is important to make the change, saying plenty of people thought that the mascot honored Native Americans but that that view was not shared by Native Americans.
"I think there was an eminently good reason to change, and so I don't agree with Mr. Tyer," he said.
Though Cameron did agree with Elias' statement that the new mascot needs to be a community decision.
Before the debate, there was a protest outside of the library organized by the Pittsfield Federation of School Employees demanding living wages for school staff.
The campaign highlighted the need for wage increases and better working conditions for support staff positions such as bus drivers, cafeteria helpers, custodians, educational secretaries, and paraprofessionals.
Smith, McGee, and Hathaway were directly asked how they would respond to the federation's requests.
Smith enthusiastically said, "Hell yeah, give them what they need." She later added that the district needs to look for outside and inside sources of revenue to increase salaries.
As a person who works in special education, McGee explained that she frequently works with paraprofessionals as a point person for students and said they need to be compensated for the district's expectations of them.
She later said that to reduce the declining enrollment trend in the district, it needs to attract young families and therefore attract young professionals by paying competitive wages.
Hathaway said she thinks the protesters made a very strong presentation and hopes those ideals are reflected in the next contract. The federation had handed out graphs that displayed how much money individuals living in Pittsfield needed to earn to support themselves and their families.
For the most part, there was agreement about higher wages across the board.
In his opening statement, Brazeau said his primary goal, if elected, is to create higher wages for educators and support staff.
When asked if he would support higher taxes to pay teachers more, Brazeau said the district has to go to local, state, and federal governments to find the money to increase pay.
"Our teachers are never paid enough," he said. "Our teachers, our support staff, everybody else, it is something that has to get taken care of next year's budget, but it needs to start now."
On top of increased wages, Brazeau also advocates for an increase in support staff such as adjustment counselors.
Elias cautioned against raising wages if they cannot be afforded down the road. He believes it can be done by building increases into the budget in the short term and granting wage hikes as they can be afforded.
Candidates were asked some questions that pointed to the physical conditions of Pittsfield schools and they all agreed that any major changes the buildings undergo — whether it is modernization or consolidation — should be fueled by community input.
"I think that no matter the decision we make, we need to make sure that it's adaptive and that it's truly meeting students' needs," McGee said when asked if the buildings should be consolidated. "It may not mean minimizing the number of logins, but making sure that they're built in a way that is supporting students and that we're dispersing our students in a way that makes sense."
Hathaway pointed out that the district has lost enrollment since its elementary schools were built and that Conte, Morningside, and Crosby were skipped in the round of school renovations that occurred around 20 years.
Smith said being a substitute teacher, she had seen educators' frustration with the district's run-down schools firsthand and that they have requested upgrades for years.
When asked if Taconic should be transformed into a vocational-only high school, Cameron said it has become increasingly difficult to offer the school's students who are not on the vocational track a full range of courses.
"I think we've been victimized by our own success here with the continuing vocational and technical education," he said.
Elias said if the school were to be transformed into vocational only, having that many students in the facility would scare him. Tyer agreed in some respect.
Due to the recent outbreaks of violence at Taconic High School, the candidates also addressed safety within the schools.
"I think I'm not sure I can come in specifically a single incident, I think I'd rather talk about the general approach to school safety, I don't want to micromanage the administration," Hathaway said.
"I know they take it very seriously, and that they have zero tolerance for that kind of activity in the schools, I've been reading the code of conduct, the schools really hammered out a new approach a few years ago, I think 2019, and we didn't get a chance to fully test this code because of the pandemic but we have another chance now to see how we can implement setting up respect and fairness and responsibility for all our students, as well as our faculty and staff."
Tyer said the district has to understand why the incidents of violence are occurring and emphasized his stance on student resource officers being important to provide safety.
A majority of the candidates agreed on the fairness of the recent superintendent selection process that prompted the resignation of a School Committee member, Dennis Powell.
Tyer said he would not second guess the committee's decision but would have handled the process "a little differently." He then added that parents aren't being talked about as much as they should be.
Cameron and Brazeau both said the process was fair even though Brazeau did not vote for Superintendent Joseph Curtis. Brazeau's vote, Marisa Mendonsa, is being tapped for the deputy superintendent position.
"There have been charges made that there was a lack of transparency, I don't know where that lack of transparency was, there have been allegations that the person who was appointed superintendent had somehow gained an unfair advantage that the fix was in," Cameron said.
"I have no idea what anybody's talking about there, the process worked the way it was supposed to, the votes were taken and based on the understanding of we have been asked to hire someone from any proceeded fully open session so I believe that the process worked."
During their rebuttle, Hathaway and Elias voiced support for Curtis.
During the forum, Tyer — who has a child with autism — and McGee and largely advocated for special education within the schools.
McGee said that as a former special education teacher in the district, she often found her students leaving for schools that could accommodate them with a better learning plan for their situation. She added that providing comprehensive supports is important.
The candidates also answered a few lightning round "yes or no" questions, one of which was if the district should have a vaccine mandate for employees. Cameron and Hathaway were the only ones to answer "yes."
Tags: debate, election 2021, municipal election, Pittsfield School Committee,