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Lenox schools are seeking more money than the town has budgeted. Now what?

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Lenox Memorial Middle and High School is pictured here in 2021. The school district  is asking for a nearly 5.5 percent increase to its operating budget, a move that will have to be approved by town officials and town voters.

LENOX — The bottom line: Nearly $15 million to fund the town’s two public schools in 2022-23.

That’s the “ask,” anyway, as Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin, Jr., presented the School Department’s recommended net operating budget to the School Committee Monday night.

It’s close to a 5.5 percent increase, or $775,000, over the current year’s total, incorporating school choice, state aid and other revenue streams. The actual total spending proposal for operations, without the offsetting revenue, is $16,757,000, not including capital investment projects.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

• The elected members of the School Committee will scrutinize the budget plan in detail at upcoming meetings before presenting it at a formal public hearing and voting to approve it.

• The town’s Finance Committee also will put a microscope on the spending proposal prior to issuing a positive or negative recommendation to voters, who get the final say at the annual town meeting in May.

But there’s a gap between Town Manager Christopher Ketchen’s overall preliminary budget plan presented to the Select Board last week. He recommended the traditional 3 percent annual increase in net school spending. There’s a difference of about $170,000 between his proposal and the School Department’s preliminary budget prepared by Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Melissa Falkowski.

THE STORY SO FAR

• Last year at this time, the School Department’s initial plan came in at $14.5 million, 4.7 percent above the 2020-21 total. Following consultations between Ketchen and William Cameron, the interim superintendent prior to Gosselin’s arrival last July 1, the budget was pared down by almost $300,000, bringing it close to the 3 percent guideline. Town meeting voters approved it, 175-18.

• More than 80 percent of the school’s operating budget goes to personnel costs — primarily faculty and other staff covered by collective bargaining agreements. Two units of the Lenox Education Association are currently negotiating a new contract with the School Department — teachers, guidance and adjustment counselors, librarians and nurses in Unit A, and custodial staff and supervisors in Unit D.

WHAT’S DRIVING THE INCREASE?

Gosselin, acknowledging “the historical effort not to exceed a 3 percent increase year-over-year,” listed the following “realities” driving the preliminary budget proposal’s 5.5 percent increase, based on preserving services at their current level:

• Maintaining a reserve for unexpected costs, such as special education placements outside the Lenox district.

• The outcome of the collective bargaining contract talks.

• Inflation nationally at a 40-year high, up 7 percent over last year.

• Only two retirements projected, fewer than in a typical year.

• Investments required to offer safe and reliable technology to support teaching and learning.

• Curriculum work needed to address findings of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation.

• The rising cost of substitute teachers.

• A cap of 40 percent on nonresident student enrollment, which limits potential school choice revenue unless the cap is adjusted upward.

Current K-12 enrollment at Morris Elementary and Lenox Memorial Middle and High School is 693, close to 90 percent of the district’s strategic plan target. Kindergarten enrollment has been intentionally limited due to COVID-19 social and emotional needs. Total enrollment is projected to remain relatively stable over the next 10 years, Gosselin pointed out.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

“We want to attract and retain great teachers in a competitive field. We hear anecdotally that we’re the district of choice for teachers and students in the region and we do have a number of teachers who leave other districts to come to Lenox. ”

— Schools Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr.

“The most concerning element of the increase is that it isn’t driven by the core elementary and secondary programs either, which come in below 3 percent. An awful lot of the cost increase is coming from special education services, technology, and so on.”

— School Committee member Oren Cass

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

@BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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