LENOX -- The School Department's strategic study committee is doubling down on charting pathways to financial stability for the district, zeroing in on the future of school choice.
During an intense discussion at their most recent meeting, the committee voted unanimously to form a five-member working group to dissect the hot-button budget issue -- "the elephant in the room," as committee member Jo Anne Magee called it.
"The number one thing that we should talk about with true facts is school choice," declared School Committee Chairman Edward W. Costa II. "It's been in the press, people are waiting for this group to bring forth some data, and to either continue or not continue it -- those decisions will be one issue that will be pins to 100 other issues."
According to Thomas Romeo, a committee member, the strategic study's 900-plus surveys of community sentiment demonstrated "an amount of misinformation, or lack of knowledge or incorrect information Some things on the survey are a complete oversimplification."
"One of those is regionalization," he pointed out. "You will not be able to do anything on that in any short term. Furthermore, it takes a town meeting vote to even study the topic."
"Even school choice has yet to be truly defined for our community," Costa stated. "We've got to start doing that. Some folks want to paint it as purely financial. But for the 20 years-plus Lenox has used it, it's for a critical mass of students, not because of the money. It's to have enough students to have three tracks of college prep, etc., and have a diversity of electives."
"School choice needs to be seen in a larger context," added study committee member David Fisher, a teacher in the high school humanities department. "Are the schools of value or aren't they, and what are your criteria for measuring value? Does choice make sense within that, or doesn't it?" He questioned whether "other financial variables will look better if we remove it. We don't know until we do an analysis."
"I believe that no one has done an actual analysis of choice," said School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald, a study group member. "We've done peek-a-boos and partials, and looked at components of it, but we've never actually sat down to pull it all apart and to look at everything it touches from beginning to end."
A blueprint charting the school system's future direction remains a work in progress as the 13 members of the study committee collaborate with the Public Consulting Group (PCG), hired to coordinate the task of settling on three to five main issues that can be addressed over the next several years.
Some taxpayers feel burdened by the school district's slice of the town budget -- about 60 percent -- while others view the strengths of the system as a major asset, in part to stabilize, if not expand, the town's population.
PCG is planning a second retreat with study committee members and others. The original schedule for completing the strategic study has slipped back by a month, with a final report unlikely until sometime in April.
The mission, according to Magee, is to "jump start" and organize strategy on financial sustainability. Magee and colleague Robert Vaughan, former Morris Elementary School principal, have encountered "pushback" on that issue, she said.
"We can't discuss where we want to go financially without understanding" data on the district's finances, said study committee member Neal Maxymillian.
"The biggest challenge we're faced with is somehow being prepared to speak to that tough question, when this plan rolls out, the whole question of financial sustainability and what we're going to do about it," Magee commented.
Superintendent Costa cited a recent study by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission pinpointing shrinking school enrollment trends countywide, resulting from an ongoing drop in population, especially of young families with school-age children. In Lenox, 29 percent of the 753-student enrollment is made up of school choice pupils.
"There has been a 25 percent drop in the countywide school population in the past 20 years," said Magee, "and that's devastating."
The working group organized to focus on the district's financial challenges includes McGee, Vaughan, Fitzgerald, Romeo and David Naseman. The group would report back to the 13-member strategic study committee.
"The real ‘elephant in the room' is making the tough decisions," said Maxymillian. "If we emerge from this entire PCG process and say to the public, ‘We're going to ensure sound financial management with available resources,' we could have said that without hiring anybody -- ‘be good and try hard.' "
"I hate the hesitation, not doing anything," said Fitzgerald. "I would encourage us to at least take one thing that's comfortable to start with, and we at least start picking away at that while we determine how best to work with the more nebulous issues."
To contact Clarence Fanto:
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