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Lenox school spending request is being trimmed. Will it hold down property tax hikes?

students decorate tiles in classroom

First graders make "kindness tiles," which were to be assembled together to make a quilt of positivity during Morris Elementary School’s celebration of Global Play Day in Lenox. Lenox Public Schools is working to trim spending for Fiscal Year 2024.

LENOX — Following pushback from town government leaders, the public school district is trimming its spending requests.

The goal at Town Hall, especially among Select Board and Finance Committee members, is to spare taxpayers, especially seniors and retirees from a possible 6 percent property tax hike.

“I don’t want to see an undue portion of that come down onto senior citizens on fixed incomes,” Select Board Chairman David Roche said at last week’s meeting.

“We still struggle to come up with a budget that’s going to be palatable to taxpayers,” Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said at a previous meeting, and Selectman Edward Lane urged school district leaders to cooperate with town officials.

The current overall town budget projection for fiscal 2024, which will begin July 1, comes in at $32.8 million, said Ketchen, including a 4.5 percent operating budget increase and major capital project investments, resulting in a 6 percent hike to be raised through property taxes.

In spite of a less dramatic increase in health insurance expenses than expected, the school district administration is still seeking an increase of $788,000, or 5.3 percent, according to interim Superintendent Jake Eberwein’s preferred “valued-added” budget.

His proposal calls for nearly $15.7 million in total spending, including benefits for the 2023-24 fiscal year, roughly half of the overall town budget.

The status-quo level services alternative plan would total just over $15.4 million, up $550,000, or 3.7 percent over the current annual education budget.

A “level services” budget would deliver the same services as the previous year, although costs will still increase.

Last week’s School Committee meeting sifted through the preliminary budget:

Morris Elementary Principal Brenda Kelley asked for part-time literacy supervision support staffing for students in kindergarten through second grade, enabling early intervention because of some “behavioral situations within the school.” Post-pandemic social and emotional needs have intensified, she said. Her overall “value-added” budget request of $2.9 million is up by $117,000, 4.2 percent from last year, or $55,000, 2 percent with “level services.”

Director of Special Services Brian Kelley is seeking $2.3 million in funding, up $170,000, 8 percent from the current school year for value-added spending, or $125,000, 6 percent for level services. His department includes special education, individual education plans, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, a transitional program for participants up to age 22, and homeless coordination. Kelley also noted that school adjustment counselors serve about 20 percent of students in Lenox. About 16 percent of the entire district budget is spent on special education, he said.District Technology Director Randy McLeod proposes major wireless and monitoring enhancements for the 20 surveillance cameras at Morris Elementary and 65 at Lenox Memorial Middle and High. He’s seeking a wireless support technician for $45,000. Additional proposed increases for software programs that were previously grant-supported; hardware, including new Chromebooks for sixth and ninth graders; and other program costs total $155,000 over current spending. Overall department spending of $411,000 includes $89,000 of increases, or 28 percent, for value-added requests; or an increase of $45,000, up nearly 14 percent, for level services.For the central school district administration at Town Hall and school busing, the budget request is $851,000, up 4.6 percent. Operations and maintenance by the custodial staff would total $1.31 million, up 4.2 percent.

The budget proposal for Lenox Memorial Middle and High School will be presented to the School Committee on Feb. 13. The committee is expected to review and discuss all proposals before approving the final budget request in mid-March. Town meeting will have the final say in early May. Traditionally, residents have approved education spending by a wide margin.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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