LENOX -- The School Committee has tapped lightly on the brakes for any immediate, decisive action stemming from a strategic study that included a focus on the local district’s future financial prospects.
A working "financial stewardship" group of five named by the Strategic Study Subcommittee is doing a deep dive into the impact of school choice on the system’s economics by examining and analyzing data. Out of 753 students enrolled currently, 217 are from Pittsfield and other nearby communities.
In addition, there are a few students tuitioned-in from Richmond, where the town’s Consolidated School extends through eighth grade.
At the School Committee’s most recent meeting, Chairman Don Fitzgerald acknowledged concerns by the town’s Selectmen about "where strategic planning is going, how fast is it going, when will we get there, and could we be there before Town Meeting" on May 1.
"There’s no way we can be, with something this complex that touches this many issues," he declared. He predicted that major decisions would begin to emerge somewhat later, when "we can get good information and recommendations."
"As you dissect a lot of the information, especially around school choice, collaboration, especially choice -- when you look at all the things it touches, I think that we do the whole community a disservice if we do not explore it completely and build it to see what this would look like if we carried an idea all the way to the end," Fitzgerald said.
The committee chairman urged intense scrutiny of the costs and the impact on school programs "for any of the models we may propose or give to the community for their acceptance. We need time on this, it’s very deep and complex. Sorry to say, it’s not going to be done well in a couple of months."
At the same meeting, schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II emphasized that the entire county continues to lose population, resulting in a steady drop in student enrollment in most districts.
A study completed by the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission last year listed a population of 131,219, as of the 2010 U.S. Census, down significantly from the county’s peak of 149,402 in 1970.
The gradual departure of GE from Pittsfield, starting in 1987, the shutdown of Sprague Electric in North Adams several years earlier, and the more recent closing of paper mills in Lee and Lenox Dale, are cited by economists among the key factors in the population erosion.
A decline in births, combined with an aging population, a drop in new arrivals and a steady flow of young adults out of the county leads to a projection of 128,133 Berkshire residents in 2020 -- the same level as last seen in the early 1940s.
With an accelerating decline to only 87,783 residents in 2060, according to long-range commission projections, the Berkshire population would be comparable then to what it was in the late 1890s.
To stem the drop-off, the commission recommends long-term solutions -- primarily, attracting young families and stopping the after-school exodus. Costa and School Committee member Michael Moran pointed out the need for affordable housing and job creation by business and industry.
School enrollment projections for Lenox, including school choice students, indicate the current enrollment of 753 would decline to 705 five years from now, and 685 in 10 years.
Even if the district continues its current school-choice policy, Costa said, "our numbers still go down."
The snapshot of future trends was compiled by the New England School Development Council (NESDEC), a private, nonprofit educational organization with more than 300 affiliated school districts, including Lenox.
"We better be planning for the future before the future is at our front doorstep," Costa said.
Fitzgerald, noting the hot-button issues when the strategic study began last fall, commented that the information on population and enrollment trends "makes us realize that it’s far more complicated than we initially believed. ... We’ve really just gotten into the meat of the matter."
He suggested "raising our market share ... a little bit is eating the lunch of other towns around us, gaining more residents and making the district as attractive as possible and fiscally sustainable long-term."
"But don’t compromise on what we already have," added School Committee member Francie Sorrentino.
Fitzgerald counseled patience and continued involvement by Select Board members, "but it is going to take time." He suggested the initial 3- to 5-year timeline for putting action steps into effect may evolve into a 10-year process, with modifications and tweaks.
"It’s a tightrope; sometimes you might give something up for the greater good, but you’re not going to give up your programs, and that’s the long-term vision, what it boils down to," Fitzgerald concluded.
The overall strategic study, shepherded by the Public Consulting Group (PCG) based in Boston, is in its concluding weeks of data analysis, based on 950 surveys as well as additional school and community-wide interviews, before a final report is presented to the School Committee, probably next month.
To contact Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto
By the numbers ...
Berkshire County population trends:
Lenox School enrollment trends:
Note: Totals include school-choice students.
Sources: U.S. Census, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, New England School Development Council.