LEE -- The Lee Public Schools needs to change the way it operates -- possibly through regionalization -- as the status quo isn't an option.

That's the message several town residents delivered to local school officials during the last of three public input sessions on the status and future of the district's budget, leadership structure, academics, athletics and after-school programs

With declining enrollment and rising school spending over the past decade, town taxpayers can't afford the current school system, according to resident Peggy Biron.

"There is a saturation point and we have hit it," she said at the final gathering Tuesday that focused on academics.

Since 2003, Lee Public Schools' enrollment has declined from about 900 to 717 as of March 25, as school spending rose $1.81 million -- a 29 percent jump to the current $8.14 million budget for fiscal 2014.

Freda Grim, mother of a Lee middle school student, says it's a matter of spending wisely over spending increases.

"I want to do more and more with the schools and there isn't any more money," she said.

The focus groups that have meet since late January are the latest phase of the school district's ongoing self-evaluation that could determine its future financial, academic and governance structure. The committee hopes to complete its study by June.

While the Lee School Committee is exploring options that include collaboration or regionalization with neighboring school districts, none has emerged yet as a clear-cut favorite of taxpayers, parents, students and other stakeholders in the local K-12 school system.

However, Lee already has in place several aspects of collaboration in place with the Lenox Public Schools.

"We have shared services with Lenox through physical therapy and occupational therapy," said Lee Elementary School Principal Kate Retzel.

In addition, Lee Middle and High School and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School have several cooperative sports programs.

While Lee and Lenox school officials informally discussed ways they could work together last spring, both are conducting separate self-evaluations to address their common problem of rising school budgets and declining enrollments.

An online survey conducted late last fall by the Lee School Committee found about two-thirds of 162 people polled felt strongly about collaborating or sharing services with one or more neighboring schools district; nearly half favored Lee becoming part of a regional school district. Overall, 230 people took the survey, but dozens didn't answer all 13 questions.

"No matter what direction we take, it won't be a savior for taxpayers ... but rather better address the needs of the students," said interim Lee school Superintendent Alfred Skrocki

In Lee, collaboration through shared services, administrators and programs seemed to appeal to many townspeople, increasingly popular with school districts across the state, according to Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. MASC is assisting Lee with its self-assessment.

In September, the seven member school board unanimously agreed to explore the options and benefits of sharing services with an area school system. The collaboration could range from a mutual agreement over a shared administrator or program to regionalization, possibly with Lenox.

Koocher also pointed out Lee could consolidate its central administration with another school district by expanding the Lee-Tyringham Union 29 in which both towns currently share a superintendent. He cited a couple of union expansions in Massachusetts that lead to regionalization.

From the Berkshires to Cape Cod, Koocher noted Lee and Lenox are among more than a dozen other communities debating the future structure of their school districts.

"Richmond, Hancock and New Ashford are trying to figure this out too," he said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233