Sunday March 31, 2013

LEE -- The Lee School Committee is poised to endorse an $8.14 million school budget for fiscal 2014 -- a reasonable spending plan, according to the committee.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless has proposed Lee taxpayers fund a $256,000 increase in education funding starting July 1, a 3.25 percent increase over the town’s current $7.9 million school spending plan.

While no formal vote was taken, the school board at its last meeting said it initially supports the preliminary spending plan that will be presented at a public hearing in April.

"Some things in here are critical to protect," said committeeman Robert E. Lohbauer. "The 3.25 percent [increase] is not an unreasonable number."

"I would be hard-pressed to approve anything less than what we’ve requested," added McCandless.

The school board will gather public input on the fiscal 2014 spending plan at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 9, at Lee Elementary School. The seven-member panel is expected to adopt a budget after the hearing takes place, then place it on the warrant for May’s annual town meeting for voters to consider.

McCandless said the proposed $256,000 spending hike takes into account potential teacher pay raises, little if any increase in state aid, and proposed staff reductions.

One planned cut is $73,000 for a curriculum coordinator position that was established for the current academic year.

"No matter how successful it was, we can’t justify spending on that position given the current state of the economy," McCandless said.

A total of $286,000 in salary increases for the Lee Public Schools’ 150 employees is what’s driving the proposed budget hike. McCandless says that item takes into account a possible "modest" hike in teacher’s salaries, once the committee and teachers union successfully negotiate a new three-year contract.

The superintendent is also requesting an increase in funding to purchase new foreign language textbooks, update math and science materials and equipment and boost the classroom supply account across the entire K-12 school system.

McCandless cited how years of cutting back on supplies has become a burden in the classrooms.

"It’s starting to show how much teachers are using their own money [for supplies] and they are asking students to also contribute," he said.

In addition to taxpayer dollars, school officials for the second consecutive year want to use $500,000 in school choice money to lessen the financial impact that the budget will have on taxpayers. In fiscal 2011, Lee had $710,000 available in choice funds to help pay for the budget.

If approved, the fiscal 2014 Lee school budget will have risen $1.81 million since 2003 -- a 29 percent spike in expenditures -- as student enrollment has dropped from more than 900 to the current 791 during the same period.

While the town Finance Committee is concerned over the continuing increase in school spending, School Committee Chairwoman Susan Harding says they are justified.

"A lot of these costs are driven by kids with tremendous needs," she said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.