LENOX -- With the future of the town's school district on the line, a strategic study involving the entire community -- including school-choice students and parents from Pittsfield, Richmond and other towns -- is on an express track over the next few weeks.
The first step calls for the formation of eight focus groups, which will gather viewpoints from parents, students and the rest of the community.
"Our goal is to actively engage all segments of the Lenox community to build a shared vision and action plan for our schools' future," said School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald, one of 10 members of the Strategic Planning Subcommittee. "Our schools are a significant asset and expenditure. We want this Strategic Plan to be a product of the entire community."
"What are our schools doing right? What can we do better?" he asked. "How can we optimize the educational opportunities for our children within the town's ability to pay."
School operations and staff benefits account for about half of the town's current $23.6 million budget.
Faced with declining enrollment and a school-choice population approaching 30 percent, the district is exploring potential changes that could include shared services with a neighboring district, collaboration or even some form of regionalization.
It's the school system's first strategic study since 1983.
"This is arguably the most important thing that is happening with Lenox public schools, engaging all of our stakeholders from students to empty-nesters and everybody in between," declared schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II. "That process will determine our next five years as a school district."
Volunteers for the focus groups will be selected by Sept. 30 for a one-time, 60- to 90-minute session sometime between Oct. 7-10 with the independent, Boston-based Public Consulting Group (PCG), which is shepherding the Lenox study under a $39,500 contract.
Each of the eight focus groups will include eight to 10 participants; among the categories are parents, taxpayers including second-home owners, current or former students, local-business owners and the at-large community. Any group that attracts more than 10 applicants will be narrowed down by a lottery-type drawing held in public, Costa said.
Other groups will represent School Department staff, student councils and municipal government.
A public survey can be completed between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31 at lenoxps.org/strategicplan. Printed copies will be available at the two schools, Town Hall, the library, the Lenox Community Center and Kimball Farms.
A school-capacity profile will be conducted by PCG on Oct. 11 for elementary, middle and high school leaders to explore all aspects of present and future district operations, including academic offerings such as advance placement, honors and college prep tracks as well as enrollment trends.
"In Berkshire County, all of Massachusetts, we're losing students every year," Costa said, citing statistics reported by the county's Regional Planning Commission. "Are we planning for the future, given what the demographics are telling us? The telltale signs are beyond argument, we're losing residents."
Final enrollment figures for the town's schools are being compiled; the figure as of late August was 786. Last year's total was 783.
After the survey, the community forum and other information-gathering activities are studied, a written plan of action will be recommended by the consulting group, with specific action steps and goals.
The local subcommittee, whose meetings are open to the public, is expected to complete its report next March for presentation at a public meeting and to the School Committee.
"I can promise there will be action taken on whatever the report reveals," Costa said. "We're not doing this to put it on a shelf. That won't happen. We're investing time, energy and certainly the money to do this, to truly affect the future of Lenox public schools."
School study timeline ...
• Monday, Sept. 30: Deadline for applications to participate in focus groups to be held Oct. 7-10. Open to everyone with a stake in the Lenox school system. Apply to firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or 637-5550.
• Oct. 1-31: Strategic Planning Survey, conducted online or from printed copies widely distributed in Lenox.
• Tuesday, Oct. 8, 7 p.m.: Community forum, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Auditorium, 197 East Street.
• Friday, Oct. 11: Elementary, middle and high school leaders meet with Public Consulting Group (PCG) to develop School Capacity Profile.
• March 2014: Local strategic planning group to complete work on PCG report for presentation to the public and the School Committee.
Information and updates: lenoxps.org/strategicplanning.
To contact Clarence Fanto: firstname.lastname@example.org or (413) 637-2551. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto