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Pittsfield Mayoral Candidates Talk City Schools In Second Debate

Two people sit behind a table in front of rows of seated people.
Josh Landes
Tyer and Mazzeo faced off in the Pittsfield High School library.

The candidates for mayor of Pittsfield, Massachusetts debated education policy Tuesday night.

First-term Mayor Linda Tyer and challenger Melissa Mazzeo of the city council are running in the general election after September’s preliminary vote halved the field. With just three weeks until election day, the pair appeared at Pittsfield High School at an event hosted by the Berkshire Educators Action Network to talk education.

“Tonight, you’re going to hear the mayor use some words such as dynamic, world class, progressive, and vibrant," said Mazzeo. "And every time that she speaks those words, I want you to ask yourself, is she speaking to the truth of what is happening in our schools.”

At-Large city councilor Mazzeo described the city’s schools as in crisis, with scores of teachers leaving for neighboring districts and endemic violence that she tied to a larger trend of rising crime rates in Pittsfield.

“So my vision for as the mayor of Pittsfield Public Schools is to make sure that every teacher feels supported and has the ability to teach to their craft," she said. "They’re professionals – we need to lean on them and understand what they need to teach our children. Our students that are here, they need to feel supported, they need to feel safe.”

“One of the things that I think we ought to be able to do in this next term is as mayor, I’d like to join the joint labor management committee, so that I can be at the table for the conversations that are happening between the teachers and the administrators," said Tyer.

She agreed the schools need to be a place where all students are supported, and underscored her administration’s investments in public safety and its pursuit of a Department of Justice grant for school safety.

“What’s hard about the Pittsfield Public Schools is that we have kids that come to our schools with all ranges of abilities and all kinds of personalities and all kinds of home lives," she said. "And so it’s really a challenge for our teachers to be able to provide classroom support to a wide range of kids.”

According to state data, student discipline rates during Tyer’s first term ranged from a high of almost 8.5% in the 2015-2016 school year to a low of around 7.8% the following year. The most recent information from 2017-2018 was just over 8%. Comparatively, during her predecessor Dan Bianchi’s tenure, discipline incidents were reported at over 11% of the total student body during the 2013-2014 school year. Since 2012, total enrollment in the Pittsfield Public Schools has declined from around 6,300 students to just under 5,700. Compared to state averages, the city’s schools are lagging slightly in English and mathematics, but more dramatically in science.

Mazzeo widened her criticism of Tyer’s leadership in the schools to another county leader – District Attorney Andrea Harrington.

“We took away a really great program that was well received throughout Berkshire County, the STRIVE program," said the city councilor. "People wrote letters to the editor how they really missed the fact that we had this program, and the DA – who the mayor supports and has ideals that align with her – has taken this program away, and has now put in a diversion program. Well, no one knows what the diversion program is supposed to be doing, and what it’s really doing is causing a culture of leniency.”

The DA’s office tells WAMC it disputes Mazzeo’s comments on the STRIVE program, and said that it has not ended it. It issued a statement saying that it “prioritizes enhancing public safety through prevention,” and that “in April, some 200 area students attended the STRIVE leadership conference. It is a wonderful program to engage youth and we look forward to next year’s conference.”

The candidates also discussed the city’s school facilities. Tyer touted her administration’s improvements to some of the city’s aging education infrastructure – namely, replacing 40-year-old carpeting at Morningside School. She said the city needs to focus on that and two other neighborhood schools that she described as being under attended to, and said new state funding could provide for that.

“I think this is an opportunity for us to examine enrollment, to think about whether our middle schools need to scaled down in size," said Tyer. "Maybe we have three middle schools instead of only two, because that seems to be an area where we lose some of our families. But certainly, Morningside, Conte, and Crosby have to be part of that solution.”

“In a debate that the mayor and I had on TV the other day, the mayor was pretty adamant about her vision of taking Conte and Crosby and taking down Crosby and building this big one campus kind of a school and moving the kids over there and then giving the Conte School out to, for a community building or something like that," said Mazzeo. She said she was taken aback by the comment, given the city’s existent infrastructure projects.

“We’re just starting to pay for the Taconic High School, we have an enormous increase in a wastewater treatment plant of a $64 million that everybody’s starting to feel when they open up their water and sewer bills, and that’s only going to continue, so we have that to pay for," she said. "And at the same time, we have a police feasibility study out for a new police station. There’s an earmark out there that Senator Hinds got for a little over $4 million to look for a new police station that this police station has been talking about for four years of promising that’s going to happen.”

To hear the full debate – including discussion of student and teacher retention, a vote Mazzeo cast to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from the school budget, and more – listen below:


The general election is November 5th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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