LENOX -- The prospect of regionalization is "the elephant in the room" as the town's strategic study on the school system enters its critical phase, including a focus on the financial and academic pluses and minuses of heavy reliance on school choice enrollment.

That characterization was voiced by Lucy Kennedy, chairwoman of the Lenox Finance Committee, during a recent joint meeting between committee members and the five-member Board of Selectmen.

The lively discussion set the stage for tonight's townwide forum for residents to express their viewpoints. The meeting is in the auditorium of the Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St., at 7 p.m.

"One of the obvious solutions is to look at regionalizing to get more utilization, variety, and share some costs, potentially," said Kennedy.

But Steve Kutno of Public Consulting Group (PCG), moderator of the session, emphasized that regionalization "is not part of our mandate, but if it arises as a priority, it will emerge as something we have to look at. But when we were brought in, they didn't say ‘we want you to look at regionalization.' "PCG was hired by the town to coordinate the strategic study.

Best learning model

"As a member of the community and the Finance Committee, I would be disappointed if that weren't at least examined," Kennedy responded.

"It might be rejected," she acknowledged. "The pros and cons of regionalization are part financial, but they're also about what is the best learning model. Certainly, you don't want to drag kids all over the place, you don't want to have giant class sizes. Those are negatives but there may be some positives as well, more options for educational tracks and sports."

"The elephant, to me, is that there are a lot of cultural biases about combining Lenox with any other entity," she added. Kennedy asked Kutno, as a neutral third party, "to examine some of the pros and cons in a culturally neutral way."

Former School Committee Chairman Jay Carberry pointed out that legislation approved in 1993 setting tuition of incoming school-choice students at about $5,000 a year is far below the steadily increasing actual cost of educating a student in Lenox -- currently just above $15,000, according to State Department of Education figures.

"I think we have to consider regionalization," Carberry asserted.

He suggested everything south of Pittsfield might become "one big school district -- that is the next step because I don't know where we're going right now, unless something gives. If the Legislature wants to hold on to that $5,000, I don't see a way out for Lenox or anybody else."

But, he added, "in any regionalization scheme, you have to have lower elementary grades stay right where they are."

School union idea often rejected

The possibility of a collaboration by forming a school union with another district came up, but former local Principal Robert Vaughan pointed out that town voters have rejected the option at least seven times.

Several recently arrived young parents attending the meeting, including Laura Kittross, Jim and Georgianne Harwood and Molly Elliot, agreed that the high ranking of the school district played a major role in their decisions to relocate.

Kittross emphasized the appeal of the school system as its own individual district. "I've heard about lots of issues about regionalized school districts, and they never seem to go well," she said. "Nobody seems to be happy with them."

"We're trying to manage a town budget of a little over $22 million, of which over 60 percent goes to the schools," declared Select Board Chairman David Roche. "We are continuously asked if that is a fair representation of what the ratio should be."

"We're busting our necks now as a group to keep our tax rate increases minimal and manageable, and also to increase other sources of income," he asserted.

Selectman John McNinch called reducing school choice an option "which will hurt at first, but then maybe not. That seems like an easy fix, except that we won't be able to maintain that quality of the school, and that's my biggest concern. I wish I had an answer for it."

"I don't want to see us drop off the level of education we're getting for our students," McNinch added, "but I don't want to pay to educate all of Berkshire County."

But Vaughan cautioned against losing school-choice revenue without anything to replace it, forcing a cut in grade sizes to 40 students and "starting a spiral" that could lead to a district-wide $25,000 per student price tag for local education.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com or (413) 637-2551.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto