LENOX -- The future of the town's school district -- with its gradually shrinking base of local students and a school choice population representing 28 percent of enrollment -- is on the line following this week's formal launch of a wide-ranging strategic study.
Challenging issues, such as potential collaboration or combination with another district and the future of school choice, are due for close scrutiny.
Stressing total transparency, Lenox Schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa III emphasized that the public will be fully involved in the process through frequent Web updates, focus groups, townwide community forums and online surveys. The School Committee's Strategic Study group and the Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG) held its kickoff meeting on Monday.
"I hope we're setting a road map toward academic rigor," Costa said. "First and foremost, the act of teaching and learning is our mission. Everything else is second place."
PCG, a U.S.-Canadian management and technology public sector advisory organization, was hired by the School Committee through a $39,500 contract to guide the study. A final School Committee report is due in March.
"In today's culture, people feel like anytime you have meetings behind closed doors, something's brewing and there's covert action underway," Costa said. "I want this process to disprove today's culture and prove we're going to be absolutely open. Everybody who pays any taxes in town, anybody who's in our school system, can be a part of this. It's absolutely inclusive."
Pam Kueber, a citizens' representative on the study group, expressed the hope that Lenox residents will "feel that their voice was heard, and as a result they'll support the direction we're all going to go, and they'll feel confident and proud."
"It's usually the unhappy people who show up," said Steve Kutno, PCG's director of strategic planning services. "We grapple with this. How do you attract all the people in the community who are silently happy with what Lenox is providing?"
"There are no foregone conclusions," said Thomas Romeo, a former 24-year member of the School Committee. "There's no definitive track that we're taking, whether it be collaborative, regional Our eyes are open to all the different avenues available. We're trying to figure out what's best for the kids of Lenox."
Committee member Jo Anne Magee depicted the project as "a road map for the future, to know where we're going and why."
"One of the things that's a burr in a lot of people's saddles is the school choice issue," said School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald. He said that the small size of the district allows for individualized attention but also limits programming.
"We are in total control of the number of kids who come in," Romeo said. "What is the tipping point of the educational benefit and at what point does it take away from the town and the nature of the school?"
Kueber stressed the district's reputation for "excellent academic outcomes," including high MCAS and SAT scores.
"We are so small that if [school] choice went away tomorrow, we're down to a core group of 600 kids and you can't have a college-prep course, an honors track, an advance-placement track," Costa said. "When you get so small, that ceases to be possible. You then have a graduating class of 47 kids."
"The education model we have used for 150 years may have to change based on those facts," said Fitzgerald. He suggested "teachers might wind up becoming moderators, facilitators and mentors for online courses and technology, using the excellent staff we have in a slightly different way."
Study group member David Naseman said that while all taxpayers are funding education for every local student, the "school choice obligation" is voluntary. "Is that an obligation that can be sustained over time?" he said.
"If that group of kids coming in enhances the educational benefit significantly, it may be a dollar well spent," Romeo said. "I always get concerned when people use the numbers piece without the educational benefit."
Kutno, of PCG, asked: "What is the compromise? If you lose those [school choice] students, you gain financially. But then Ed has to cut the number of programs he offers because he doesn't have enough students."
Fitzgerald cautioned that "the goal is not necessarily to eliminate choice, it's how are we fiscally responsible to the taxpayers while providing as great an education as we possibly can. If certain things happen, they trigger other things, such as a word some people quake at when they hear it -- some form of regionalization, whether it's services or combining with an adjacent town."
He cited a possible collaboration with Lee or even a combination with Monument Mountain in Great Barrington.
"The town will either pony up and say we want to keep it this way even though it costs an arm and a leg, or no we want to do it slightly differently and here's the amount we can take on without choking," Fitzgerald said. "That's the town's decision. We go to some kind of action plan based on people being fully involved."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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On Twitter: @BE_cfanto