LENOX -- Acknowledging that its current operating model is unsustainable, the Lenox School Department is exploring drastic solutions that could include full or partial consolidation with another municipality or the eventual phaseout of school choice.
Plans for a long-range strategic study of school spending that now accounts for about 60 percent of the total town budget emerged this week at a joint meeting of the School Committee, the Select Board and members of the Finance Committee.
The session's goal was to close a short-term $34,000 gap between what the School Committee believes the district needs to sustain current academic programs, and the town's proposal for fiscal 2014.
The School Committee has proposed an increase of $262,488 in school spending for fiscal 2014, which is 2.4 percent more than the current school budget. That figure is also $34,151 higher than the $228,337 included in Town Manager Gregory Federspiel's fiscal 2014 school spending proposal.
"We're looking to have the support of the Finance Committee and the Selectmen to fund the additional dollars," said School Committee Chairman Don. W. Fitzgerald.
The school district's future dominated discussion during the session. A School Committee strategic planning group that includes town representatives, has been created to explore options.
"We believe the way things are set up now is an unsustainable model long-term," Fitzgerald said. "We need to look at everything that the school district does and every way it works.
"No matter what we do, some people are going to be unhappy, some will be tickled and probably the vast majority is going to be nervous because there will have to be change in every department," Fitzgerald said.
School Committee member Veronica Fenton made it clear that eliminating school choice entirely from the district was not under consideration.
"Short term cuts don't save us money," Fenton said. "But we have to look at it long-term."
With community involvement, Fitzgerald stressed that the strategic planning committee will look at every aspect of how the district is run and what it may look like five years from now.
He voiced the hope that "we can get a couple of years of funding short-term while we work on this". He predicted the analysis would take two years to complete, and another two years to implement the recommendations.
"We're also going to look at keeping it exactly as it is now," the school committee chairman added. "What does that cost taxpayers? The community is going to have to decide what they want the future of their school district to look like."
He also proposed that other town departments might explore sharing services with nearby communities.
Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler praised the School Department's willingness to explore major changes but questioned the long-term timetable for the strategic analysis. Selectman David Roche suggested that one year studying the analysis should be sufficient.
Fitzgerald emphasized that the district's academic programs should not be "gutted" or "left to die." While acknowledging that school choice "adds a ton of diversity and is great for excess capacity, there is a tipping point when it becomes something you have to feed, and we're close."
Selectman Edward Lane supported a community-wide effort to explore shared services on all levels. Colleague John McNinch had mixed emotions, praising the direction of the presentation, but voicing reservations about whether the town should fill the $34,000 spending gap.
The Finance Committee will consider the proposed school budget at 6 p.m. on March 27. The Select Board is expected to consider the town's budget proposal on April 3, and the measure will be presented to voters on May 2 at the annual Town Meeting.