LENOX -- The financial survival of the town's school district remains a hot-button issue as the outside consultant hired to survey community opinions rolled out his formal presentation of the results before about 110 people at Town Hall.
The 90-minute discussion Tuesday evening on a strategic plan was moderated by Steve Kutno of the Public Consulting Group, who emphasized that no decisions have been made on potential regionalization or a change in school-choice policy.
"This project was not about making a decision on those things," he declared, "but understanding where those fall in terms of community priority."
But, he noted, exiting what has been termed "survival mode" for the district "has to do with school choice, things like regionalization or unifying. Those are all just possible pathways, and we're not there yet because just pulling the trigger on any one of those issues doesn't bring us to financial stability."
"It is much more complex to resolve financial stability than just making the choice that you would regionalize or unify your staff or administrators with another district," Kutno asserted. "Costs could go up for the taxpayers and down for the district ... It's not as clean and clear as just saying, let's regionalize."
"It's also about control," he added. "If you regionalize, you give up some amount of control."
"I'm not saying you won't regionalize as a result of this project," Kutno told the audience. "I'm not saying you will regionalize. What will happen next is a group of people who represent you, not me, will brainstorm around what is the best way to ensure the financial stability of the community and also reflect the desires of the community."
In response, former School Committee member Charles Koscher told the consultant: "I think you're making a huge mistake by not making financials the centerpiece of this entire conversation. Understand what is within the scope of reality ... if you don't have that down pat, everything you're going to talk about is going to be pie in the sky."
According to Koscher, "the real burning question in town is the financial sustainability of the school system. We're not in a crisis mode, we're in a mode that is our reality."
He listed tax rates, school choice, state mandates including the tuition level for non-local students, contracts, scheduled teacher's raises and health care costs.
"All of this financial plum is really the bedrock that you've got to understand and to master," Koscher said. "Then you can start to talk about the things you might want to do to change what's going on in the school system."
Earlier, Kutno had stressed that it would be up to the town to figure out specific goals and action steps to be taken over the next five years to address three to five issues emerging from 950 surveys, nine focus groups, a community forum and a dozen interviews conducted last autumn.
The views of at least 1,200 people -- taxpayers, parents, teachers, faculty, staff and administrators -- were represented in the final 250-page report, starting with a 24-page summary, posted online at www.lenoxps.org.
"The report is not the strategic plan," Kutno emphasized. "What becomes the plan is turning those ideas, those priorities, those themes into goals. The next step is to turn the goals into a series of action steps."
"We are doing very, very well in terms of quality of education," said resident Elliott Morss, an economist. "How are we going to deal with out-of-town students, what are we going to charge these people for coming to our town? I think that's a very important issue."
About 29 percent of the school district's 753 students are from neighboring communities, but by state law, unchanged since 1994, school-choice tuition remains capped at $5,000, compared to the current $15,000 per-pupil cost of education in Lenox.
Morss also identified "economies of scale" that would result from consolidation "if we do it right, bringing a few towns together into one school system."
"I'm troubled to hear that this is not the focus of your work," Morss told Kutno.
Based on The Eagle's examination of the survey results, opinions split evenly on the desirability of consolidation or collaboration, while no clear-cut consensus developed on school choice.
Academic diversity -- offering not only college-prep courses but also music, arts, drama, world languages and vocational education -- surfaced "as a really important area," said Kutno.
As for classroom instruction, he noted a finding that "one size doesn't fit all" and that alternatives to "teachers standing in the front of the room, the sage on the stage" are needed.
"Caring, fairness, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and appropriate citizenship" are "the six pillars of character" posted at the schools.
Students don't just want to be told how to behave but want to see appropriate conduct "embraced in the community and also enacted in the schools," Kutno explained.
School district leadership needs to move forward "in a way that demonstrates trust, that we value one another, that we assume intelligence," he said, based on survey findings.
On communication from the school system, "there's a sense that we're not doing it well," he said. "It requires a back-and-forth. It's not just about sending home information or a conversation the teacher has with a student, or the student with the parent. It's about the quality of the communication."
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