LENOX -- As the school bell rings Thursday for close to 740 public school students, members of a School Committee strategic planning group have completed crunching the numbers to begin work on recommendations to keep the local district on an even keel financially.
After a series of weekly meetings this summer, a summary document has been approved, 5-1, identifying the future of school choice as the key issue facing the district as local student enrollment continues to decline sharply.
The report projects that over the next 10 years, total enrollment in the district, including choice students, would decline by an additional 22 percent.
"This potentially could directly impact the quality of the educational experience and accelerate the cost-per-student trend to levels that might challenge the community's support," the report states.
The findings of the subcommittee, based on extensive study of state and local data on enrollment trends, will play a major role in any moves toward sharing services with neighboring school districts such as the Lee-Tyringham School Union or the Berkshire Hills Regional District, which serves Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.
"Future enrollment deserves the most attention," commented Interim Superintendent Timothy Lee. "It's rising to the top as one of the most concerning issues facing our school district.
If anything, he added, the language of the subcommittee document "might understate the concern, a little bit, of us being increasingly reliant" on the influx of choice students.
School choice students from neighboring communities such as Pittsfield, Richmond, Lee and Monterey made up 29 percent of last year's 753-member student body. The level is expected to rise above 30 percent for the 2014-15 academic year, said subcommittee member David Naseman at a recent Town Hall meeting.
"We're not growing any more Lenox kids," he added, citing preliminary statistics showing that school choice youngsters make up about 45 percent of the incoming kindergarten class.
Over the past five years, the number of students who live in Lenox and attend local public schools has declined by nearly 17 percent, Naseman stressed. When school choice students are included, the decline is about 9 percent, "but that masks the real effect of what we're trying to grapple with in this town," he asserted.
Since 2005, the drop in local resident enrollment was 27 percent, or 203 students.
With choice students included, the 10-year decline amounts to just over 13 percent. The number of nonlocal students rose from 86 to 217 during that period.
School choice has had a disruptive effect on the town's real estate market, according to subcommittee member Pam Kueber, because "it has allowed people who want their children to attend Lenox schools to live outside of our town. And we have embraced that."
Members of the strategic study subcommittee continues its work on the school district's finances on at 6 tonight in Town Hall.
At a glance ...
Highlights of the Lenox School District's study of enrollment and school choice trends:
Projected total enrollment, 2014-15: 736
Projected school choice enrollment, 2014-15: 30 percent
Total enrollment, 2013-14: 753 (as of Oct. 1, 2013)
Local residents enrollment decline, 2005-14: 203 (27 percent)
Total school choice enrollment increase, 2005-14: 131 (152 percent)
Total enrollment decline, 2005-14: 13 percent
Projected total enrollment decline, 2014-24: 22 percent
Source: Lenox Schools Strategic Planning Subcommittee on Financial Sustainability, based on state and district statistics.