Clarence Fanto: County schools are under siege
Many, perhaps most, of Berkshire County's public schools seem to be under siege. That's either because of severe budget challenges, an urgent need to renovate (Taconic in Pittsfield, Mount Greylock in Williamstown, Monument Mountain in Great Barrington), or a burning desire to get ahead of the curve as enrollment stagnates while population continues a slow decline.
As a result, the lengthy efforts by the Lenox school district to confront its unique and formidable obstacles will be closely watched countywide.
The town's strategic study, launched last fall with guidance from the Public Consulting Group specialist Stephen Kutno, is about a month behind schedule but nearing a set of recommendations for the school board.
To the surprise of some in town, potential regionalization, collaboration, unionization with an adjacent school or shared services did not emerge as key points, though is still under discussion.
Instead, the flashpoint issue of efforts to stabilize the financial future for the small, gradually shrinking district turned out to be school choice. The Lenox schools have become magnets for non-resident students -- 219 of them, mostly from Pittsfield -- because of the perception, supported by many measures of success, that the system offers a superior education.
But with choice enrollment nearing 30 percent of the 753 total, red flags have been hoisted by some in the community.
For example, Selectman John McNinch, a popular tavern owner, has stated publicly that he has problems with local taxpayers "subsidizing" out-of-town students.
However, without the presence of school-choice students, the high school might be too small to sustain all its junior varsity and varsity sports, not to mention its newly expanded and widely acclaimed drama program. By the way, McNinch's sons have excelled in those areas.
The most vocal town resident challenging the prospect of ever-increasing school choice enrollment is a retired Washington, D.C., corporate attorney. David Naseman has done extensive research on the system's financing, drawing on publicly available data from the state Department of Education.
Naseman disputes the notion that he wishes to dismantle the school choice program over the next decade (no matter what happens, currently enrolled choice students are entitled to finish their education at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.)
To set the record straight, Naseman asserted in an e-mail message, "I have never advocated that choice be eliminated, but rather responsibly managed and reformed consistent with delivering an excellent academic program to all of our students -- ‘our' meaning students attending Lenox schools without regard to where they actually live."
Kutno, the consultant who has won high marks for shepherding the study that began with a survey and personal interviews involving more than 1,000 stakeholders, seconded the notion, stating: "From my many conversations with Dave, I know that this is indeed not where he is focusing his energy. He is trying to understand the complexities of the choice program, its impact on the academic offerings and the district's finances."
"These efforts have been misconstrued as taking a position against the choice program," Kutno added. He cautioned that the outcome is unlikely to yield "a clear single answer or pathway that will serve everybody equally well and to their personal satisfaction."
If no one is advocating a wholesale elimination of school choice, it's equally true that it's hard to find anyone content with the status quo which, if maintained, would split enrollment 50-50 between local and out-of-town students in just a few years.
Addressing members of the strategic study committee this past week, Kutno drove home his point: "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."
The intricacies of the school choice program are baffling to many residents. The key point is that while the cost of educating students in the district is about $15,000 a year, state lawmakers have limited tuition for non-resident students to $5,000 -- a formula unchanged for 20 years. The average residential tax bill for Lenox homeowners is about $4,400 a year. Roughly $2,600 of that goes to total school spending, including benefits and capital improvements.
Some in town argue that critics of choice who are willing to downsize the school district by laying off staff with the inevitable reduction in programs tend to be residents who don't have, or have never had, children in the local public school system. The opposite side of that coin would posit that defenders of the schools who seek to maintain the district's offerings are usually parents of current or former students.
There may be some limited validity to that formulation. But some childless residents and second-home owners value the schools not only for their excellence but also for keeping property values high. The typical home in town costs about $440,000, among the county's most expensive real-estate averages.
But that reality also means that very few young families can afford to live in Lenox; combined with a decreasing birth rate, the number of local students is gradually declining. It's hard to make the case to middle-income Pittsfield parents that they should move in if they wish to send their kids to Lenox schools, since properties in the city tend to be significantly more affordable.
School Superintendent Edward W. Costa II has described the school-choice issue as "polarizing" for the community as well as for the strategic study group and school board. Kutno calls it "the elephant in the community." Certainly, harsh words have been exchanged on several occasions. As for what's being posted on "social" media, let's not even go there.
One possible solution would be to limit or close school choice at the kindergarten level, while expanding it in the middle and high school in order to keep enrollment there sufficiently robust to preserve academic and non-academic programs.
That would keep the gates open for Pittsfield, Richmond and other students seeking options in grades 6 and up.
By removing the elements of confrontation and controversy, a middle-ground compromise might well be acceptable to the vast majority.
To contact Clarence Fanto: firstname.lastname@example.org
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