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LENOX >> Thanks to a welcome enrollment spike, reduced natural gas heating costs and a healthy spurt in school choice revenues, the school district's preliminary budget for 2016-17 holds the net operating budget increase to just under 1 percent, not including health insurance benefits.
In a presentation before the School Committee this week, Superintendent Timothy Lee pointed out that despite a shortfall in projected kindergarten enrollment for next fall, total district enrollment is expected to surge from the current 731 to 771, a 5.5 percent gain.
A decline in elementary enrollment is more than offset by an increase at the middle- and high school, he said: "Some good news and some not-so-good news."
However, the anticipated decline in kindergarten enrollment — 20 to 22 resident children, plus up to 15 choice students — will lead to a reduction in class sections from three to two. That would result in a loss of two positions — one teacher and a paraprofessional — at Morris Elementary, another factor in holding down budget increases. Because of pending retirements, no layoffs will be necessary, Lee said.
School choice enrollment is forecast to expand slightly to 36 percent districtwide, within the 40 percent maximum target recommended by Lee and the School Committee. But the superintendent noted that in some grades, choice students make up as much as half the total, bumping up against the agreed-upon 50 percent maximum threshold in any single grade.
Lee emphasized that for parents residing outside Lenox, the "best bet, the way to really ensure" finding a place for their children in the local school system is to move into town. As several School Committee members noted, there's an ample supply of properties now on the market, many of them relatively affordable.
Acknowledging that school choice has been "a topic of great interest in town, a lot of discussion around it," Lee said the administration "is trying to respect and recognize the proportion of resident and non-resident students that we have in our district."
The capacity to accept choice students at Morris Elementary is quickly filling up, he cautioned, since some grades already have reached the recommended maximum 50-50 per grade mix of residents and non-residents. But the projected middle and high school enrollment total for the next school year — 277 local students and 173 non-residents — "helped to drive a nice enrollment increase for us, pre-K through 12," he said.
Anticipated school choice revenue to the district for the next school year is $1,375,000, an increase of just over 15 percent compared to the current year, described by Lee as "a nice bump that really helps us meet our fiscal and educational goals." But the limitation on school choice enrollment means "that level of new revenue may not always be there," he said.
According to School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan, the projected 0.8 percent increase in operating revenues, not including benefits, "is a remarkable number to be seeing at this point and shows exactly what the town's been looking for in terms of a responsible budget."
When health insurance costs, still being negotiated by the town, are plugged into the preliminary budget for 2016-17, an overall increase of about 3.5 percent year-to-year is estimated. The budget comes up for a vote at the annual town meeting on May 5 after a series of detailed presentations at School Committee meetings next month, further adjustments, a School Committee vote and a public hearing.
Major capital investment projects are not included in the operating budget.
"We do some collaborating with the town in producing responsible budgets," Lee told the committee, based on discussions between School Department leaders and Town Manager Christopher Ketchen.
"What we're trying to do is to support an idea Chris has been conveying that we are one town, that we should collaborate and share responsibility for making this a vital and viable place to live, the schools just being one part of the town," Lee said.
"We talk about maintaining a high level of educational options, we want to make sure that the programs we're offering our students are at least that much in the year to come," he added. "We want to continue all instructional initiatives. All these programs that help our students achieve high educational outcomes, we want to make sure we continue those."
Noting that the next teachers contract with the Lenox Education Association is under negotiation, Lee said that "we want to provide for contractual obligations to all our employees — custodians, paraprofessionals and teachers. We want to make sure we live up to our part in that contract."
He pointed to increased needs for English Language Learner instruction — "the population of those students in our district continues to grow we want to make sure we have the resources to do right by those guys." New spending for next year also includes orders for math textbooks at the elementary and middle school levels.
Responding to the enrollment predictions, School Committee member Molly Elliot urged increased marketing efforts, such as open houses and presentations to real estate brokers, in order to reach prospective students and "keep our enrollment numbers robust," as recommended in the five-year strategic plan adopted by the district.
Lee stated that a potential expansion of pre-K early childhood education to five days a week, open to 3- and 4-year-olds, would be "another stepping stone to see this as a desirable place for families to make a home."
Upcoming detailed budget presentations by principals and program leaders are scheduled during School Committee meetings on Feb. 8 and Feb. 29, and a formal public hearing is set for March 21, all at Town Hall at 7 p.m.
Additional information: www.lenoxps.org or 413-637-5550.
Contact reporter Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
By the numbers ...
Total district pre-K-12 enrollment
771 (2016-17, projected)
Choice enrollment, districtwide
34 percent (2014-15)
35 percent (2015-16)
36 percent (2016-17, projected)
School choice revenue
Projected 2016-17 budget
Total expenses: $10,832,000
Total revenue: $1,374,000
Net operating budget: $9,358,000
Increase from 2015-16: 0.8% (health benefits not included)
Estimated total increase from 2015-16: 3.5% (health benefits included)