Clock ticking on Lenox schools budget decision


LENOX -- As the deadline approaches to complete the town's 2014-15 spending proposal for action by the voters, the School Committee has asked its administrators to seek a cut of about $90,000 from the district's total budget plan of $10,431,000.

But they'll be racing against the clock. According to co-interim Town Manager Mary Ellen Deming, the warrant for the May 1 annual town meeting has to be completed by Tuesday, April 8, so it can be printed and then publicly posted by April 25, as required by state law.

The Select Board will need to approve the town budget before the April 8 deadline. Traditionally, proposed school spending is reviewed by that board, the Finance Committee and the School Committee -- a key three-way meeting that has yet to be scheduled. In addition, the School Department is required by state law to hold a public hearing on its budget scenario.

At their most recent meeting, School Committee members voted 5-1 to request that the central office and school administrators try to find the savings. The committee will reconvene Thursday, presumably to review and approve a final budget request.

"We've been in a little bit of a predicament without having a town manager," said School Committee Chairman Don Fitzgerald. "We haven't really had great communication with the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee. ... So I think we have to take it on our own."

The new town manager, Christopher Ketchen, comes aboard full-time on April 7, ending a nearly 10-month gap since the departure of former Town Manager Gregory Federspiel.

Fitzgerald, citing informal four-way discussions that included School Committee member Michael Moran as well as Selectmen David Roche and John McNinch, sought committee support for a budget revision to reduce spending from a 3 percent increase over last year down to 2 percent.

"That's going to be closer to the other departments in town," Fitzgerald commented, "and to what the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen are going to recommend."

He suggested that administrators consider "low-hanging fruit" and consider the impact of potential cuts, not in academic programs, but in clubs "or something that might be acceptable."

Moran described the meetings with Select Board members as "really helpful" but also disappointing because "there was so much of a gap between what we think about how hard we're working to do a great job on the budget and being stewards of the town, and what their perceptions are."

"I'm convinced they're not trying to control us," he added, "but I think they're trying to have parity and reasonableness across all departments." Moran acknowledged that the Selectmen are getting pressure from other departments and some in the community on school spending.

Total school spending, including operations, benefits payouts and capital-project investment costs, comes to about 60 percent of the overall town budget proposal, $23.7 million for the upcoming fiscal year, up only 0.72 percent from the current level.

Fitzgerald, expanding on his point that communications between town boards and the School Committee needs improvement, maintained that "it becomes our responsibility to take the lead, because if we don't at least help in the education with them, then it's miscommunication on our part."

The result, he contended, is that statements are made at Select Board meetings that are "only half the truth and then that becomes a fact and that's problematic."

Committee member Jo Anne Magee, leader of the financial stewardship subcommittee for the school district's strategic study group, observed that support from the Selectmen is critical -- "anything we can do to work with them to the extent that it makes sense for the schools is what we should be trying to do."

Since 2003, according to committee member Robert Vaughan, net operating school budget increases have been held to 1.95 percent, on average.

Explaining her lone dissenting vote on the recommendation to explore budget savings, committee member Veronica Fenton voiced "frustration with what I'm hearing being said about us publicly and our efforts. ... We're trying to maintain programs and move forward. ... We have the responsibility to do a budget that's in the best interests of the schools and that's going to be supported by the town."

Fenton expressed irritation with pressure to take more time to "satisfy the 2 percent because that's what the Select Board wants us to do. ... We don't go into the Select Board meeting and say, ‘By the way I can think of six different ways to do your job.' So, I'm really struggling with that. ... We have a whole budget process that we've put forward in good faith."

"For a number of years, we've had a super-super tight budget when everybody was freaking out, when the governor was cutting in 2008-09, we cut way back," Fenton argued.

"Our staff and everybody bit the bullet and took one for the team," she asserted. "At some point, you've gotta move forward you can't keep running on an emergency scenario that the sky is falling when that's not what's happening. Lenox has been careful, fiscally responsible. ... We have to learn to communicate better and not act like we're in a crisis, because we're not."

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

By the numbers ...

Highlights of the Lenox School District's preliminary budget proposal for the 2014-15 school year, subject to revision:

Current budget

Total operations: $10,159,302

Revenues (includes school-choice tuition): $1,276,900

Final net budget: $8,882,402

Increase: 2.88 percent

2014-15 budget proposal

Total operations: $10,431,462

Revenues (school-choice, etc.): $1,284,000

Final net budget: $9,147,461

Increase: 2.98 percent

Source: Lenox School Department


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