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Pittsfield school committee candidates debate budget, safety at virtual forum

A screenshot of nine people participating in a Zoom conference
Josh Landes

Six candidates for the Pittsfield, Massachusetts school committee met for a virtual debate held by the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP Thursday night.

The city’s school committee is made up of seven members: the mayor – in this case, Linda Tyer – and six elected seats. Incumbents Bill Cameron, Mark Brazeau, Alison McGee and Daniel Elias are looking to defend their seats in the November 2nd election. Sara Hathaway, Vicky Smith, Bill Tyer and Karen Reis Kaveney Murray are trying to make their way onto the body. Both Nyanna Slaughter and Kate Lauzon will appear on the ballot, but have suspended their campaigns.

While Elias and Murray did not participate in the debate, the remaining six candidates discussed topics like the school department’s budget – which constitutes around $67 million of Pittsfield’s $180 million municipal spending plan for fiscal year 2022.

“Budget increases need to go into staff need to go into support staff, into our lower paying areas, which is our bus monitors, our cafeteria workers, our secretaries, the people that need to actually make a living wage and are not making a limited living wage at this point. So in order to make that ground up, we have to look at budget cuts," said Brazeau. “As far as first step is to look at cutting budgets would be do we have an overflow of administrative staff? That needs to be a hard look. Are we using all of our money correctly on that side of it? We're paid to be or we were elected to be good stewards of taxpayer money.”

Smith was asked how to reduce burnout among staff.

“We're putting a lot more scripted materials into the schools," she said. "And it's blocking a lot of that autonomy and motivation by teachers. I talked to a lot of teachers as I sub in the schools, and I've talked to a lot of them that have left. And they're very, very frustrated with the micromanagement and the feeling like they have no freedom to be their very best self.”

Hathaway – who served as mayor of Pittsfield from 2002 to 2004 – was asked what Pittsfield could do to attract and retain teachers, especially teachers of color.

“We should have a career ladder in Pittsfield, where we start with high school aged kids and introduce them to early childhood education and child psychology, things like that, have a class taught maybe by MCLA," she said. "I think this was tried. And if they don't become teachers, they'll still become better parents, because they'll understand how to raise their kids and to give their kids enrichment. But if they do become teachers, we've got home grown people with ties to the community who may be more likely to make their career here, make their stand. And one hopes that we can get those committed people from the community to bring that commitment to the schools as well.”

Cameron answered a question about parents choosing to send their children to neighboring school districts due to concerns about the Pittsfield system.

“School choice in Pittsfield is effectively white flight," he said. "There are data that the Berkshire County Education Task Force has put together that showed that 78% of the students leaving the district are white, whereas only 62% of the kids in the district are white. So that's this is an issue that requires a great deal more discussion. But I think programming and convincing people that the schools are, in fact, safe and orderly are, those are the keys to bringing students back in or attracting students from outside the district.”

Tyer was asked what else needs to be done to ensure the safety of students and staffers in the Pittsfield schools.

“The teachers need a safe environment to teach the kids need a safe environment to go," he answered. "I was dismayed with the resource officers, that- We had them in the middle schools in the high schools. And there's been a problem where we don't have enough police officers to cover the beats on the street, let alone in schools. You know, I may be wrong, but I think resource officers in our schools, not just to respond to issues, and not just to prevent an issue, but to build that community spirit, with the police, with the schools, the educators, and let's not forget the parents.”

McGee, who has taught in three Pittsfield public schools, answered a question about preparing students for the workplaces of the future.

“We need to involve our young people in that decision making. We need to involve our young people in how we decide what we're doing, because I'm seeing it in my school that my students are advancing my skills in technology, and they're seeing new and different ways to use it," she explained. "And I think we're seeing across the county, that sometimes students are using it in a negative way, and sometimes they're using it in a positive way. And so I think the first thing that we can do is work with our students on their decision making skills and their ability to critically think about any decision they're making, whether it's an academic decision or a social decision. We need them to be able to make those decisions so that then they can choose a path that makes sense for them and choose a way to succeed in that path.”

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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