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Lenox School Committee members say next year's budget is as tight as can be. But, it's still $270,000 higher than town officials want

Ketchen

Last month, the gap between the school spending proposal and Lenox Town Administrator Christopher Ketchen’s proposed budget, recently approved by the Select Board, had been $350,000.

LENOX — There is a $270,000 gap between the revised public school budget plan for the 2023 fiscal year — it now is up by just under 5 percent — and town leaders’ guidance to limit the spending plan to a 3 percent increase over the current year.

The School Department was able to whittle the budget proposal from the original total of nearly $15 million — a $775,000, or 5.46 percent, increase in proposed spending — to a smaller increase, of $696,000, or 4.91 percent, Schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr. said.

Last month, the gap between the school spending proposal and Town Administrator Christopher Ketchen’s proposed budget, recently approved by the Select Board, had been $350,000.

The new net spending total for the schools, including benefits, is just below $14.9 million, incorporating school choice, state aid and other revenue streams.

Minor savings were achieved in textbooks, field trips, athletic dues, other activities, math hardware, technology and student services. But, school choice revenue from the 2021-22 academic year, applied to the upcoming budget plan, was down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a detailed budget update at Monday night’s School Committee meeting, a consensus among members emerged that the spending plan is as tight as it can be, considering that 84 percent of the budget is based on staff salaries and $3,260,000 in benefits.

Another factor: Two units of the Lenox Education Association, representing teachers, guidance and adjustment counselors, librarians, nurses and custodial staffers, are in contract negotiations with the administration. The school district employs 164 staffers, including part-timers, a stable figure in recent years.

A public hearing and School Committee vote on the budget proposal is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. March 14. On May 5, annual town meeting voters will make the final decision on municipal spending and on the education budget, with an advisory opinion from the town’s Finance Committee.

“We’ve been trying to operate on a level-services budget,” School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan explained. “The 3 percent target becomes an unrealistic target, in my opinion. For many years, we’ve held to that or less. Just to stay level, we can’t do it at 3 percent year after year. At some point, it has to go higher because of our labor-intensive budget.

“We’re at a point now where there’s no more give,” he added, cautioning that any additional, significant budget cuts would have to involve personnel reductions.

“This is actually an incredibly tight budget,” School Committee member Oren Cass said, because the current year’s spending includes pandemic relief money and temporary savings from stipends, field trips and textbook purchases suspended because of the pandemic.

“We’re not really adding a lot to the schools,” he said. “We’re basically trying to maintain services from last year.”

Instead of “treading water,” Cass advocated consideration of spending extra money in future years on educational enhancements, such as free prekindergarten for all resident youngsters and three sections of prekindergarten instead of two.

He also noted that the cost of benefits is not rising for the upcoming budget year, meaning the “core budget,” not including benefits, is up 6.4 percent from the current year.

“What are we going to do when benefits start going up again?” he asked. “Our overall budget growth is going to be much worse.”

“Right now, we’re taking for granted that the accumulation of decisions we’ve made over 20 years represents the best possible allocation of resources for the students,” Cass suggested. “If we start from that position, we’re paralyzed in our ability to do anything that has potential to improve the overall quality of the program. We need to begin to bend the curve over time, rather than just turning the crank again every year.”

Looking ahead, Cass asked: “What are the things we’re doing now that we’re getting the least value out of, and what are the things we’re not doing that would be the most valuable?”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, or on Twitter @BE_cfanto.

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