The City of Pittsfield has been losing population for over a half-century. From its peak of over 60,000 people in the middle of the 20th century (paper mills, GE Plastics, and several other manufacturers used to be there), the population shrank to 45,000 or so by 2000. Since 2000, the city has lost an additional 2,600 people -a whopping 6% population loss in less than a decade.
Despite being located in a gorgeous area in the Berkshire Hills, people simply do not want to live there. And among the existing population, there is simply not a large cadre of young families. An aging infrastructure, particularly its school system, has come under pressure as population has declined, and as remaining residents still demand the level and quality of services one would expect to see in a larger city. Pittsfield has TWO large public high schools. One located in downtown in a lovely old building and another located just outside of town in a “sprawling” suburban setting. The city clearly needs to eliminate one of these high schools, and the issue has finally come up for discussion in one of our city council meetings. But here are the results of a survey relayed to me by my local representative:
Sent: Thursday, December 11, 2008 10:35 AM
To: undisclosed recipients
Subject:Poll Results + ACEC Hearing TonightHIGH SCHOOL CONSOLIDATION SURVEY
Thank you to the 67 people who participated in the survey about the plan to consolidate Pittsfield’s two high schools on the Taconic campus. Results were as follows:
LIKE IT (10)
DO NOT LIKE IT (55)
Most respondents offered additional comments I was very impressed with the thoughtful opinions on both sides of the issue. The majority of respondents were opposed to a one-campus solution. Their perspectives were greatly varied and their arguments against the plan included discipline issues, prior experience with large schools, pedagogical and social considerations, transportation, convenience, health, and admiration for the PHS building. A number of the respondents stated that they are educators.
Call me unsurprised. But does anyone in Pittsfield understand the notion that resources are scarce? And that we all can’t have everything we want? Coming on the heels of recent news that we lost an additional 2,600 people from the city it is hard to imagine that people retain the fantasy that we can afford two shiny new (and poorly performing) schools in such a tiny and declining city. I know there is no constituency for efficiency in government, but sometimes effective leadership means doing the right thing, even if unpopular. Is there any way to help these voters understand that bricks and books and chalkboards don’t rain down from the sky simply because we want them to?
Having lived there for two years now, this is really not all that surprising for a population that fancies itself as major parts of the “reality based community.” These discussions on school consolidation are happening at a time when city officials, supported by the remaining “realists” are dumping millions of dollars into a zombie down-town area under the false pretense that the remaining population is large enough to support massive arts and theater infrastructure, cultural amenities, expensive restaurants catering to the wants of summer vacationers and beyond the price reach (or interest) of most of the locals, etc. They really believe they can have it all – if only the leadership could get things together. I’ll remind you that the Mayor and council have been controlled by Democrats for as long as I have been alive and before it … and the city has crumbled under their management. The lesson is not that the Dems did it, the lesson is that scarcity is an unrelenting reality, and no amount of wishful thinking and hope can change this fact. It would happen with other guys in control too. But if you are looking for evidence about what leadership can accomplish in the nation, just come on over to Pittsfield for a minitiaure look. Would the “reality based community” in Pittsfield continue to demand two schools if the population fell to 4,000? Note too, that they are doing all of this while hoping to become a more locally organized community. And we know where that leads us.
There is no natural law that demands or requires cities to remain what they once were. Ironically, for a community that happens to believe in change, the rigid conservatism and romanticism for times long past is startlingly unrealistic. The change that needs to happen is for the city to shrink into a much smaller community offering much fewer services. But as long as the costs of pushing these political agendas are spread out among the remaining 45,000 of us, and try to be hidden from our view, we will have to watch before our eyes as our tax burdens increase even as the city continues to crumble around us.