Lenox school leaders see costly outcome for all-county district

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LENOX — School district leaders doubt that Lenox will play a role in the Berkshire County Education Task Force recommendation that the county's students would be best served in a single countywide district by 2027.

After viewing a webinar for educators hosted by the advisory group last Tuesday, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan said participation by the town in one all-county district would be costly.

"It would result in greater taxation for Lenox," he said. "If we lost school choice revenue, that's money that would have to come from somewhere."

"On the face of it, it looks like it could cost us anywhere from $1.5 million to $4 million to fully invest in this, 10 years out, and maybe more," Vaughan, a task force member, said in an interview. "There are a lot of unknowns."

The five-year strategic plan adopted by the Lenox district in 2015 calls for maintaining independence through 2020 "but looking at other options along the way," he noted.

"The one-district option, with 32 towns needing to approve it, seems like quite a dream," Vaughan said. "While I don't think we're consciously not trying to be part of the countywide solution, we have to look at what's best for Lenox at any given point. Right now, I would say going it alone seems like a reasonable option."

While the town's year-round population is stable currently, hovering at or just below 5,000, "we recognize we're surviving because of school choice," he acknowledged. "That's not necessarily a long-term strategy, we know we're going to hit some limits at some point. We could use some new residents to help us."

Vaughan also voiced doubts about a three-district setup — north, central and south — because "it doesn't really address the goal of the task force for equitable education for all students, because the greatest amount of wealth is in South County. So it doesn't help Adams or North Adams."

But a South Berkshire district that includes the 15 towns in the southern part of the Berkshires might be a reasonable option, he added, although it doesn't enhance education for everybody.

"I'm not sure what the best answer is for the county as a whole," said Vaughan, who abstained from the 26-1 task force vote in favor of one district. "The three-region plan was a better alternative, except the wealth is so poorly distributed that it's not overall a great solution for the county."

Schools Superintendent Timothy Lee, who attended the webinar screening along with School Committee members Christine Mauro and David Rimmler, backed Vaughan's viewpoint.

"In terms of serving Lenox students, it's working right now," Lee said. Opening day school enrollment of about 770 includes 277 nonresidents, or 36 percent of the total, based on preliminary figures.

"What I worry about sometimes is that as the demands of the workplace change and with the demands of preparing our students for the future and new technical trades, there are students every year for whom our highly academic high school is not the best match," Lee said.

Despite "some neighboring options," the superintendent emphasized his continued interest "in solutions to that issue, which I know our neighboring districts are having as well, that would allow us to share resources."

A South Berkshire solution to boost vocational education opportunities remains elusive, Vaughan acknowledged.

"Lenox students have a reasonable opportunity to get to Taconic," said Vaughan, referring to the Pittsfield high school that's being rebuilt with an enhanced vocational program. "But that doesn't help people from Egremont, Monterey. There needs to be some kind of South County solution."

While supporting the current go-it-alone approach for Lenox, Lee suggested that "there are some limitations educationally that we're going to run across, especially when we talk about preparing those students who may be looking at the trades or technical careers. We can't do that very well here, and I think we'll need to reach out to our neighbors to make that happen." A potential collaboration with Taconic High might be an option, he added.

Vaughan noted that during the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting Sept. 14 that yielded a withdrawal from the task force, "they didn't mention Lenox in their South County solutions." The committee voted unanimously to begin talks on a potential merger with the Southern Berkshire District based in Sheffield and with the Lee Public Schools.

"I don't know if we'll find ourselves alone," Vaughan said. "They mentioned Lee and Southern Berkshire and kind of left us out."

Times have changed since 1981, when Lenox offered "a $1.2 million buy-in" to merge with Berkshire Hills, a move strongly supported by voters in Lenox and Stockbridge but rejected by taxpayers in Great Barrington and West Stockbridge, killing the potential deal, Vaughan stated.

Now, he pointed out, "a lot of people would have to agree, but I'm not sure we're there."

Vaughan suggested that "a logical, although expensive step" would be for Monument Mountain Regional High in Great Barrington to include a vocational program in the next redesign of its building, after two rejections of previous plans by the town's voters.

"Monument has had a difficult time in any case," Vaughan conceded, "and if you then started to say, `Let's start a building with the added expense of vocational,' that would never go through" without some kind of broader South County support.

Vaughan said that a South County forum organized by task force member Andrea Wadsworth, who chairs the Lee School Committee, is taking shape not only for educators, but also for the general public. No date has been determined.

Contact correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.

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