LENOX >> The future size of the town's school district and the number of nonresident choice students formed the backdrop of a vigorous discussion by the School Committee this week.
In his preliminary budget presentation for the 2016-17 academic year, Superintendent Timothy Lee proposed cutting the number of kindergarten class sections at Morris Elementary School from three to two because of an expected decline in enrollment of resident children for next fall.
The impact would be the loss of a teacher and a paraprofessional; because of pending retirements, no layoffs would be needed.
But on Monday night, School Committee Vice Chairwoman Veronica Fenton indicated that kindergarten enrollment is "much more robust than anticipated."
"While it makes sense to be conservative about school choice," she said, "it's sort of hard to hire a kindergarten teacher at the last minute if we end up determining that it's in the best interest of our students to actually add that third section."
Lee acknowledged that instead of 19 or 20 local students expected to enroll, the number has increased to as many as 26 to 27.
The ideal size of a kindergarten class is pegged at 16 students per section. Lee and the School Committee have agreed to limit school choice to 40 percent of districtwide enrollment, and not more than 50 percent in any specific grade.
Arguing that the future excellence of the district is at stake, committee member Neal Maxymillian pointed to the district's five-year strategic plan that includes a commitment to "a choice school system." He urged that "we not react to a single year's data and reconfigure the entire school system based on a year" of lower kindergarten enrollment.
Maxymillian cautioned that a two-section grade of 32 to 35 students "doesn't feel too terrible" in the elementary school, but starting in middle school, "we become a very significantly different educational institution."
"I don't believe we can be as excellent as we are, or deliver the same level of education, when you have only two sections, 35 kids moving through to graduation at the high school," he declared.
"I think we're at a crossroads," Maxymillian warned. "We're either looking at becoming a much smaller school district that won't be able to maintain its excellence, or we have to think about combining with other systems and regionalizing if we want to have the instructional excellence in the sixth [grade] through graduation age group."
He strongly advocated retaining three kindergarten classes by taking more choice students.
Lee, a former Morris principal, said that 22 nonresident families are seeking spots at Morris Elementary's kindergarten.
"I believe that the biggest asset we have here in Lenox is our teachers and administrators, that's what makes our school great," Maxymillian continued. He expressed worry that smaller classes would yield a staff downsizing and "an erosion" of excellence.
"It's a very big decision to drop a kindergarten section," committee member Robert Munch agreed.
Lee suggested that a timeline for a final decision should align with scheduled kindergarten orientation on March 14 and March 21.
Morris Elementary Principal Carolyn Boyce predicted that by the end of next month, "we should have a much clearer vision" of the enrollment picture. She also noted that the end of March is "plenty of time" to hire a third kindergarten teacher, if needed.
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan, also a former principal at Morris, stressed that he has been a longtime advocate of keeping three kindergarten sections and voiced anxiety about "the viability of the high school if we go down this road" of cutting back to two.
However, he credited "the responsible leadership of our superintendent to present a budget based on the numbers the way they are. I always keep hoping enough students will come through for that third section, even if it's a combination of our students and some choice students because I'm really interested in the long-term viability of our schools."
The superintendent's preliminary net operating budget proposal holds the increase for 2016-17 to just under 1 percent, not including health benefits. With those benefits included, the increase is 3.5 percent.
Lee proposed that the remaining funds from last year's school choice revenue could help cover the cost of a third kindergarten teacher.
"I'd really love to maintain three sections of kindergarten," he said. "It makes for a healthy school but given what we knew about resident enrollment, it didn't seem like the responsible thing to do. But for the vitality of the school and the ability to retain super-quality staff for a number of years, that is certainly the best way to go."
But, Lee said, "the truth that we don't look at too often is that when we accept so many school choice students, we're doing a disservice to our neighboring districts." He pointed out that those students would be an asset to their neighborhood schools, and a district like Pittsfield — where the majority of choice students in Lenox live — must pay the Lenox school district for each choice student — $5,000 as required by the state Legislature for the past 20 years.
Lee noted that "these other districts are really struggling to make educational progress. I know that our first responsibility is to the students of our own district, but I grapple with that reality sometimes, the fairness of it all. It's a bit of an ethical conundrum. We need to reflect on that going forward."
At the next School Committee meeting on Feb. 29, Lee plans to present additional information on the kindergarten section issue.