LENOX -- A discussion of school choice erupted into a brief burst of verbal fireworks on Tuesday night between two members of the School Committee's strategic study team.

The dispute came during a three-hour session at Town Hall exploring the future of the school choice program, which brings in close to 30 percent of total enrollment in the district.

It was one of a half dozen strategic planning sessions this week to be led by Steve Kutno, a consultant hired by the School Department to shepherd the six-month study.

"School choice is the elephant in the community," he said.

Schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II said the issue has polarized not only the School Committee but the entire community.

If the strategic group fails to come up with a decisive recommendation on whether or not to phase out or modify the program, he said, the entire study will be dismissed by the town as lacking credibility.

Supporters of school choice maintain that the 219 out-of-town students, mostly from Pittsfield, enable the 753-student district to maintain multiple academic tracks in high school -- advanced placement, honors, college prep and full-service special education -- as well as a robust array of junior varsity and varsity sports teams as well as extracurricular programs such as the expanded theater department.

Critics argue that under a state Legislature formula unchanged in 20 years, school systems receive only $5,000 per choice student in tuition from their hometown school district.


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That's about one-third of the per-pupil cost of education in Lenox. The critics claim that Lenox taxpayers are, in effect, subsidizing the education of non-local students.

If any change in school choice policy is recommended and implemented by the School Committee, the 219 non-local students currently in the district would be able to continue through their senior year at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

But elimination or reduction in the choice program would cut into nearly $1.5 million in annual school choice revenue received by the district, leading to staff and program cutbacks reflecting what could be a 500-student enrollment.

Despite the strong feelings on both sides of the argument, Costa voiced confidence that a middle-ground consensus would be reached soon -- definitely before the May 1 annual town meeting.

"I believe in a matter of days, not weeks or months, we can agree to how school choice should work," he told The Eagle on Wednesday.

"If the strategic planning committee can't role model our expectations for the rest of our staff and community, then we've lost everything," he said. "Everybody has to leave their own personal biases and opinions, recognizing all the views and create something that's great for the greater good."

At the session attended by 13 school and community representatives, Kutno of the Public Consulting Group warned against an ambiguous "plan to plan" outcome on school choice.

He recommended close scrutiny of the impact that maintaining, reducing or phasing-out choice would have on the system's finances, class sizes and programs.

Citing a sharp decline in the town's birth rate, resident David Naseman noted that "in kindergarten right now, you cannot fill two full classrooms. So you're recruiting an entire class from Pittsfield and some other places and bringing them in. That needs to stop. ... There's no reason why we should be educating students from Pittsfield. They should stay in Pittsfield. ... We don't need to be educating other districts' kids."

However, incoming enrollment trends fluctuate widely -- as an example, 40 Lenox children are set to attend kindergarten next fall, enough to fill the usual three sections of 14 students each.

If choice is eliminated and the size of each class shrinks from an average of 60 to 40, said community representative Pam Keuber, "at what point do the classes get so small that parents say, ‘This is too small for my kid, I'll send them somewhere else.' "

"When it comes down to it, the choice decision is about cutting costs," Kutno pointed out. "And the only cost we're talking about is positions."

"If we downsize or right-size to only Lenox students, we could save money now," Keuber said. But the tradeoff would be a reduction in the middle school and high school programs, she added.

One scenario floated by several participants would phase out choice in the elementary grades, but maintain it for middle and high school classes.

Veronica Fenton, the School Committee vice chairman, cited "several voices that say end school choice tomorrow, but there's a large percentage of the Lenox population that disagrees with that, respectfully."

When Naseman objected, telling Fenton, "I appreciate your motives," a 30-second, high-pitched verbal dispute erupted between the two, leading Kutno to call a time-out.

After restoring calm, Kutno said: "I don't think the people who've suggested that choice be reduced are necessarily saying, cut off choice. I think that what we have here is a black-and-white conversation. ... I know that Dave Naseman and several others have suggested we eliminate it. We are here to solve this problem."

"If we don't take the decision on choice to present to the School Committee, then the [critical] things that have been said about the strategic plan process will in fact be validated," she said. "I think everyone in the community wants the same thing: High-quality schools, run by Lenox."

To contact Clarence Fanto:

cfanto@yahoo.com

or (413) 637-2551.

On Twitter: @BE_cfanto

In Their Own Words ...

Steve Kutno, Public Consulting Group, leader of strategic study: "My point is, I don't want to turn choice into black-and-white. I want this group to be creative about how we look at choice. Part of the conversation has to be about class size, part of it about how many staff we have, part of it has to be about the birth rate and other elements. ... I won't have the group turn into a barroom conversation."

David Pugh, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School teacher: "What I see is an academically rich environment. I have gifted soccer players who are school choice, I have gifted mathematicians who are school choice, I have students across the board, I do not know where they live. ...I see students who perceive other students for who they are, I see teachers working their butts off for the students they have, whether they're school choice or not. I see a diverse level of programming. There are high expectations in the classroom and in the field. ...Our priority should be to maintain the programs. I see school choice as sustaining, but definitely, the district has to be innovative."

Schools Superintendent Edward W. Costa II: "As part of the committee, I will be advocating what my position is, but it may have to soften to create the greater good, the common wealth of school choice for the district. I will be flexible to create a better decision that everyone can live with."