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Pittsfield School Committee Taps Curtis For Permanent Superintendent, Prompting A Resignation

A grid of nine participants in a virtual meeting
A screenshot of the April 14th, 2021 Pittsfield, Massachusetts school committee meeting. Dennis Powell is in the center square.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts school committee chose a new permanent superintendent Wednesday, prompting one member of the body – Berkshire County’s NAACP chapter president – to resign in protest.

Dennis Powell abruptly resigned from the committee just after a 4-3 vote to pick interim superintendent Joe Curtis for the job running the county’s largest school district at a virtual meeting.

“I just felt right from the very beginning, that the whole process was rigged," said Powell. “From the selection of the consultant, from the way the search committee was formed, to Joe Curtis stating that he was not going to run for the position and requiring that the school committee give him a contract that promised he would be able to go back as the deputy when a superintendent was selected. And we had no prior knowledge that he had changed his mind and was going to go for the position until we received the applications from the consultant.”

Describing the process as a waste of the community’s time, Powell says the body tasked with finding a new superintendent was problematic from the get-go.

“There were people who reported directly to Joe, that was part of that search committee,” he said.

The NAACP chapter president says the city has missed an opportunity to address issues of quality and equity in its schools that an outside candidate could have better handled.

“The state has cited a lot of issues with the school that have to have to be corrected," said Powell. "You know, we talk about, we really care about all the kids and the need to understand the kids and whatnot. If we really believe that we wouldn't have an Eagle Street Academy that's full of brown and Black boys who are supposed to be problematic. They've created this school where the education is definitely not of the same quality that kids would get in the regular mainstream school.”

Powell said two candidates from outside Pittsfield – interim superintendent Portia Bonner of the Bozrah, Connecticut school district and Buckland, Massachusetts Mohawk Trail Regional High School principal Marisa Mendonsa – were better equipped for the job.

“I got so many so many complaints and emails from teachers asking me to please do not select Joe Curtis," said Powell. "We don't have a voice. And when we use our voice we're retaliated against. And I got that from teachers as well as principals. So the school committee really did not listen. They didn't listen to the students’ voice, either.”

School committee chair Katherine Yon defended the selection.

“Joe Curtis has been a leader has been cultivated in our district," she told WAMC. "He has seen everything from the teaching level, to the principal level and now to the deputy superintendent level. He worked at Morningside Community School, which is one of our schools in an area of poverty with a great deal of diversity. Joe Curtis made his family from this community. He adopted three children from this community. He works very closely with DCF. He is dedicated to the diversity, equity and inclusion work. I think his understanding of the district and the community is stellar. And I think that's so important in doing any of this work, understanding who we are, and where we want to go.”

Yon said she found Powell’s decision surprising.

“I wish he hadn't resigned," said Yon. "I wish rather he would have taken the tactic, can he be helpful? Of course he can. And he could start by perhaps, sitting down with Mr. Curtis and talking through some issues that he has. But I think his emotions probably were very strong and powerful, and he felt he had to do what he had to do. But I did find that very disappointing.”

For his part, Powell said his experience on the school committee has made him question Pittsfield’s actual commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity.

“They talk it but they're not ready to walk it," he told WAMC. "They're not interested in walking it.”

WAMC has requested comment from Curtis through the school district.

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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