Playing to an empty house, candidates discuss school renovation, Core curriculum

Noticeably absent from the opportunity to query School Committee candidates were opponents of the high school renovation project, critics of the school committee and district officials, especially some residents of Castle Hill, a grand neighborhood of Victorian homes perched just above the railroad tracks.

Great Barrington — On a dark and drizzly Tuesday night, the Claire Teague Senior Center was like that forest where a tree falls and nobody ever hears it.

Except this was a candidate’s forum for the Berkshire Hills Regional School District’s School Committee, held amid a combustible Great Barrington political atmosphere over the upcoming Monument Mountain Regional High School renovation project re-vote on November 4. It was a wonder the house wasn’t packed, considering the continued strafing of public officials and volunteers, particularly those on the school committee.

Nine total attendees could be counted — and that included three members of the press, four town and school officials, one resident, and the wife and children of one of the candidates.

The event was sponsored by Eileen Mooney’s NEWSletter and the Great Barrington Democratic Town Committee. Democratic Town Committee member Michael Wise made introductions, then turned it over to Moderator Paul Gibbons.

Incumbent Steve Bannon, William Fields and Jeremy Higa are running for Great Barrington’s two seats. Incumbent Daniel Weston and Jason St. Peter seek two available Stockbridge seats. Jason St. Peter did not attend the forum. Kristin Piasecki is running for election for one of two West Stockbridge seats; Piasecki has filled a vacancy since July. And there is no candidate for the other seat after committee member and incumbent John Krahm died last month.

From left, Stephen Bannon, William Fields and Jeremy Higa.
From left, Stephen Bannon, William Fields and Jeremy Higa.

Noticeably absent were opponents of the project, critics of the school committee and district officials, especially some residents of Castle Hill, a grand neighborhood of Victorian homes perched just above the railroad tracks. The neighborhood’s list serve, HillGB, has been on fire for days over the renovation controversy. Tuesday night’s forum at the Claire Teague Senior Center explored the very issues HillGB debated: the renovation, school choice and tuition, regionalization and educational mandates — all of which have been raked over the list serve with not a school official in sight. Hill residents have become increasingly alarmed by the blitzkrieg of hostility by a handful of laptop warriors who, they say, never participate in school or other public affairs. Indeed, not one could be counted at the forum. The next morning, sure enough, project opponents fired off more electronic rounds.

Yet there are those who still want to run for unpaid local office in such a climate.

Moderator Gibbons said the forum was not a debate, and that it would not be spent entirely on the renovation issue. Yet each candidate spoke in favor of the project. Stockbridge candidate Daniel Weston is a second grade teacher at Undermountain Elementary School in Sheffield. He was unhappy, he said, at the way dark motives were ascribed to the school committee over the project. “It’s not fair to debate whether these people [School Committee] have honest or true motivations. This is not the healthy debate we need.” He said the committee worked for the “most efficient, economical and educationally sound project for the district.”

“There can be disagreement without disrespect, and there are people who have not mirrored that, and that’s sad to me,” said incumbent committee chair and Great Barrington native Steve Bannon, a 4-term School Committee veteran who is also on the Selectboard. “There is a lot of healing to do in this community…whatever happens after the [renovation] vote.”

Candidate Bill Fields of Housatonic worries about safety and security issues at the high school, especially “in a rural area where there’s hunting and there are guns,” he said. “I’m a taxpayer, too…I know this is going to be a burden.” But so have all the other expensive projects recently undertaken in Great Barrington, he added.

“They’re just trying to make it a better school,” Great Barrington candidate Jeremy Higa said, referring to the school committee’s work on the renovation plan. Higa has lived in the Berkshires since the early nineties, and is a well-known waiter at Martin’s Restaurant at the top of Railroad Street. His three young children attend district schools. “If we don’t vote yes, we are really missing a chance,” he said.

Higa is pro-school choice but agrees the district needs to continue its work to increase reimbursement rates for students coming from other districts. “We need to manage it, not cut it off,” he said. He said that the diversity choice students bring to the district should not be overlooked. “Do we want…a vanilla cookie cutter school or do we want what we have now?” To cut choice from the high school, he said, would also cut opportunities like “AP courses, vocational programs, and some of the things that really make Monument unique.”

Bannon said he would like to find ways to “reward good districts” like Berkshire Hills Regional School District, that are popular for out of district students, but are only partially reimbursed at state capped rate of $5,000 per student.

Incumbent Daniel Weston of Stockbridge and Kristin Piasecki of West Stockbridge.
Incumbent Daniel Weston of Stockbridge and Kristin Piasecki of West Stockbridge.

The school choice program is just one of many hot potatoes handled by Berkshire Hills school officials — one where their hands have been tied by state law. Another is the unequal funding allocation between the three towns, of which Great Barrington has the largest share. Gibbons asked if this district agreement was “fair in its present form, and if not, do you see changes that could be made?”

Kristin Piasecki of West Stockbridge said she thinks “the different town contributions are divisive.” Piasecki has lived in the Berkshires for 12 years. She works at Barnbrook Realty in Great Barrington, and has two children at Monument High, one in college, and one at Berkshire Country Day School. Piasecki filled Carole Kuller’s vacancy on the committee.

“I think it hurts our sense of community,” Weston said, noting that the school committee does not make the district agreement, and that it was up to the towns. An Ohio native, Weston said he grew up in a three-city school district that had “one tax rate and one election for the community.” When he moved here he was surprised that the three towns vote individually on budgets and have different tax rates. “This was alien to me,” he added.

Bannon pointed to the maze one might enter in order to shape the agreement more to Great Barrington’s liking. Most of the criticism of the district agreement, he said, comes from the town “because anywhere from 69 to 70 percent of most of the expenses are from Great Barrington.” He said the other two towns would have to agree that there is an inequity. “I have not yet heard a concrete solution to the inequities that we could actually get all three towns to agree to, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to discuss it.”

Former Finance Committee member and candidate Bill Fields said a friend from Stockbridge complained about “how unfair [the agreement] is,” and said to him, “is there some way that we can help you out?” Fields, who taught social studies at Monument for 40 years, and is now retired, responded, “…get the selectmen to look at [the district agreement].” Fields said “the issue seems to be capital costs,” and said if the Selectboard doesn’t move on working towards a more equitable agreement, the School Committee could “give them a nudge.”

But Fields, noting that Great Barrington is “the largest community in the district,” said, “nothing is ever going to be equal.” Some residents of other towns, he said, “feel that we should carry the load.”

A retired teacher, william Fields is concerned about the detrimental effect of standardized testing.
A retired teacher, William Fields is concerned about the detrimental effect of standardized testing.

Higa said this issue might become heightened when the shared services project begins. The project is the brainchild of Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox), to help six nearby districts share expenses. “The [school] committee has little direct say,” about the agreement, “but we as citizens have a lot to say to our selectmen.”

Gibbons then tossed the regionalization question to the candidates. Bannon, who has participated in “three or four discussions” with another district, said that “our district has asked in many ways” and there hasn’t been much “enthusiasm.” He noted the “geographic problems,” namely transportation. Bannon thinks bringing districts together will “happen eventually,” but the shared services project is the only starting point.

Piasecki said she agreed “shared services is the first step.” Weston wouldn’t comment, since he teaches in the neighboring district.

“The Legislature — they’re the one’s holding the purse strings with transportation,” Fields added, wondering how students would be bussed to and fro in a far-flung rural district. Fields recalled that “we tried it once with Lenox in 1983 or 1984,” and it was voted down. He also worries about the “meshing of educational philosophy,” especially compromising that of Monument Mountain High School. He’s not sure that other districts would share the same mission. “That’s something that’s being missed in the debate,” he observed. “We’re talking about money, we’re talking about the number of students in this building versus that, but what about a mission and the philosophy about why we would be doing this?”

“The devil is in the details,” Fields said of merging districts. “It’s not a panacea.”

“What can you all do to get people to buy in, to get people to become part of the process?” education advocate and renovation steering committee chair Karen Smith asked the candidates.

Fields said that voters “cry when something happens to their pocketbook.” When regionalization becomes an issue “and money is involved, then you start to see what we’ve seen in the last year — you’ll get involvement.”

Bannon has been in the game long enough to know that the concerns of school choice, district agreements and regionalization are studded with land mines — all issues in which the committee is subject to the state and other towns and districts. And perhaps the renovation project gauntlet has seasoned Bannon enough for him to make some impressive, perhaps impolitic observations. “It’s the fringe things that people are more concerned about than the educational part.” He said the “most important thing the School Committee can do is to make sure that the educational components of our school district are sound, and if regionalizing helps that or doesn’t hurt…that’s terrific.” But, he said, when people talk about regionalization, it’s “financial, not educational.” He said that during his nearly 20 years on the School Committee he has found that most activism revolves more around sports programs rather than education, and this was “discouraging.”

“We don’t talk about education,” he said. “We always talk about savings.”

Yet one of Bannon’s main priorities is budgets. “And the escalation of budgets and the effect on the three towns.”

Weston said this was his concern as well, “providing oversight of the district to make sure it’s run efficiently,” and “not wasting resources.”

The other candidates also mentioned budgets and funding as a concern.

But it is Fields who has a powerful agenda, and made it known from a tall platform. Fields is opposed to federal and state educational mandates that, he said, have stripped creativity from teaching and learning. He says standardized testing has gone too far. He said districts can opt out of what is known as “Common Core,” a standardized set of goals that determine what students should know by the end of each school year. “The standardized movement is like a machine,” he said, evoking the imagery of tractors in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” “That’s the position I see us in,” he said. “We’re not that poor, but we’re inundated.”

He said there is a growing national backlash by teachers and parents against standards, and used New York as an example, noting that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, once a Common Core supporter, has switched his position. “Cuomo is listening,” Fields said. There is even, he said, a website devoted to the cause: unitedoptout.org.

Bannon said that testing is “necessary and important, and there is room not to teach to the test.” Weston said that is “what we do with the [test] data that is most important.” Higa said he “personally” did not like standardized testing, but “at this point it is a necessary evil,” that is tied to funding.

And so it goes: education and funding…forever the twain shall meet.

The event was filmed for CTSB-TV, and will shown before the November 4 election.