LENOX — It’s back to the proverbial drawing board for the proposed 2021-22 public school budget, caught in a squeeze between its projected 4.8 percent increase and pressure from town leaders to trim back to a 3 percent hike.
To close the gap, school administrators need to find about $245,000 in reductions to their nearly $14.5 million budget plan for 2021-22, which includes operations and benefits. That budget represents about half of total town spending.
At the School Committee’s formal public hearing Monday night, members voted 6-1 to defer action on the spending plan until its April 5 meeting. The committee and School Department leaders will meet with the town’s Finance Committee at 5 p.m. Thursday to scope out savings.
Finance Committee members Michael Feder and Kristine Cass have taken a deep dive into the budget proposal and voiced concerns about the “staggering” hike in spending while most other town departments have submitted austerity proposals limiting increases to 2 percent, on average. That is in line with Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen’s target.
Cass, a parent of two children at Morris Elementary School, asserted that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “this is a year for austerity, and there is still a lot of economic uncertainty regarding town revenues in the upcoming year.” She stated that “many residents are struggling to pay their property tax bills” and described the current School Department budget proposal as “staggering, even in a normal year; well beyond the norm.”
Cass declared that she and Feder are “deeply concerned” about the spending proposal, calling it “troubling” and cautioning that, without cuts, the town either would have to reduce other “very lean” town department budgets, cut contributions to post-retirement benefits or impose higher property tax bills on residents.
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan outlined three alternatives for a vote after the legally required budget overview by Melissa Falkowski, the School Department’s assistant superintendent of business and operations:
• Approve the budget as presented;
• Approve a budget with a lower total;
• Delay a formal vote on a final, revised budget until April 5.
Vaughan reported that, at a Town Hall meeting Monday, Ketchen and Select Board Chairman Neal Maxymillian “felt pretty strongly” that the school spending increase should be held “closer to the 3 percent mark.”
To get to that target, the proposed budget would need to be cut by about $246,000.
After his lengthy discussions that included Falkowski, interim schools Superintendent William Cameron and School Committee member Molly Elliot, Vaughan said “we felt we could perhaps get a third of the way, perhaps we could come up with roughly $80,000 [in reductions].”
But, he acknowledged, “there was a lot of sacrifice in the town over this past year,” and 14 municipal employees were laid off.