LENOX -- The School Department plans to speed up a community-wide strategic study to explore a possible long-term revamp of the district that might include partial or full consolidation with another town such as Lee.

The goal was announced by School Committee Chairman Don W. Fitzgerald during a joint meeting with the Finance Committee this week that yielded a meeting of the minds on proposed school spending funded through the town budget for fiscal 2014 starting July 1 of this year.

A previous $34,151 gap between the town's proposed school spending increase of $228,337 and the district's "level-services" budget scenario of $262,488 was cut in half to $17,151, thanks to discussions that yielded savings on health-insurance premiums and payments, vocational education funding, as well as additional revenue from school choice, said Town Manager Gregory Federspiel.

The compromise proposal amounts to a 2 percent increase in school operational spending for the upcoming year for a bottom-line total of $11,089,180, he said.

The Finance Committee voted unanimously to support the budget plan, which -- after formal ratification by the School Committee and the Select Board -- will go to annual town meeting voters on May 2 for a decision.

A formal public hearing on the budget remains to be scheduled. Meanwhile, negotiations continue with the school district's three bargaining units representing teachers, paraprofessionals and custodians.

"It's really an accomplishment to reach the 2 percent range," said Finance Committee Chairwoman Lucy Kennedy.


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On potential regionalization, the options could range from no change in the school district to combining administrative services or a more complete consolidation. Kennedy suggested that Town Hall might explore similar studies.

"The School Committee has done a very nice job of looking at a plan to do a plan," said Kennedy. She proposed that a group of volunteers could look at a potential combination of town services such as administrative functions. Kennedy has had preliminary talks with the Lee Finance Committee, "since they're facing the same issues we're facing," said Joseph Nejaime, a member of the Lenox Finance Committee.

"Anything that has the ability to combine and save money, we're going to listen to," said Select Board Chairman Kenneth Fowler.

Fitzgerald said the School Committee seeks disinterested, objective, outside professional assistance as it begins exploring potential changes. State grants would be sought to support a specialized management consultant, he said.

He noted annual, eleventh-hour obstacles toward providing minimal level of services with available budget resources.

"We liken it to the guy living paycheck to paycheck," Fitzgerald explained. "We need to look at the process long-term."

The strategic planning group is being asked to "look at everything we do, every which way, in every possible scenario on how to re-do the school district," he added. "It would run the gamut from running it exactly the way it is to eliminating choice, combining with an adjacent school district, or sharing services for the central office. Only by looking at everything can we plan what's best for the town.

"We're all in a rush for this and we'd like it as quickly as possible," said Fitzgerald. "We're hoping that within the year we'd have a plan to be able to implement."

Initially, he had estimated a two-year time frame, "but everybody in town is kind of antsy to move forward," he said. "The longer things take, the fire cools, so if we can keep the fire hot, we'll look at everything."

"This is new territory," said Fitzgerald, "and we've got to have the whole community sign on for it. If it's a half-baked plan, it's not going to fly and you waste a lot of enthusiasm, effort and good intentions. So we'd rather have a good solid process by which we can develop a real workable plan that the community can support."

An informational forum for residents will be held at Town Hall on Wednesday, April 24, at 7 p. m. that will include a preliminary discussion on the strategic study as well as a look at the long-term school budget outlook.

To contact Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@yahoo.com
or (413) 637-2551
On Twitter:@BE_cfanto.

By the numbers ...

School department (proposed)

Operating budget: $11,089,180

Spending increase: $262,488

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Town (proposed)

Total spending (school debt, town debt and capital projects included): $23,713,000

Operating budget (schools included): $16,281,000

Spending increase for schools: $228,337

Compromise spending increase plan: $245,488

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School enrollment: 791

Incoming school choice students: 227

Outgoing school-choice students: 41

Projected school choice revenue: $1,160,000

Budget figures subject to minor revision.

Sources: Lenox School Committee; Lenox Town Manager town budget proposal for Fiscal 2014.