LENOX — The Select Board and the town’s Finance Committee are flashing a yellow “proceed with caution” light on projected School Department spending for 2023-24.
The preliminary increase is pegged at nearly $900,000, 6 percent above the current year’s budget.
The school district's Interim Superintendent Jake Eberwein has told The Eagle he will be heavily involved in helping the School Committee shape the budget plan.
At Monday night's School Committee meeting, Eberwein presented a superintendent's budget reflecting a 6.75-percent increase over the current year, reflecting in part a 13-percent hike in benefits costs.
At last May’s annual town meeting, residents approved the $14.9 million school spending plan by an 83-17 margin. That budget included a nearly $700,000 increase from the previous year.
Town Manager Christopher Ketchen noted residents are “supportive of public education in our town,” as voters routinely approve school budget requests.
He told Select Board members he had cautioned the Finance Committee last week that the projected education budget increase would cause a nearly 6 percent property tax hike and that municipal services could be affected.
That led to what Ketchen described as “healthy pushback” from the committee.
“We still struggle to come up with a budget that’s going to be palatable to taxpayers,” Ketchen said. “But realities are creeping in.”
“For the last few years, Chris and the Select Board have made adjustments to the operating budget to reduce the school budget’s impact on taxpayers,” Finance Committee Chair Kristine Cass told The Eagle this week. “I worry about continuing that approach year after year.”
“If the school budget continues to grow faster than the town budget, the school budget becomes a larger share of the total amount each year, and that’s a concerning trend,” Cass said. “We had a discussion about whether Chris and the Select Board should instead present the budget they want, and allow taxpayers to decide if they want to pay the full cost of the proposed school budget.”
Select Board members appeared to be on the same page.
“The schools have to cooperate with us,” Selectman Edward Lane said, “and we’ve got a problem because we never get the cooperation. Chris [Ketchen] shouldn’t be cutting every other thing in town just to accommodate whatever the schools say they need. It’s just common sense.”
Select Board member Neal Maxymillian urged Ketchen not to squeeze other town services in order to compensate for projected increases in the school budget.
He urged “some diligence” by the Select Board and the School Committee to reconsider the size of the increase.
Select Board Chairman David Roche said officials try to keep the property tax rate “as manageable as possible, especially for our fixed-income and elderly population.”
He pointed out that at town meetings, those people tend not to show up “to support what we feel is best for them.”
Roche asked for details on reasons for the expected $900,000 school budget increase.
Maxymillian described concern by the School Department that more spending on administrators are needed in the schools “to manage things well.”
“Our difficulty retaining people at the upper levels of the school administration seems to bear that out,” he said.
Maxymillian said he could live with a 6 percent hike if it’s targeted to “fix” the personnel issue, but not if the budget is padded with unrelated expenses.
Roche called for a “comprehensive plan” rather than “throwing money at it as the solution.”
With newly hired superintendent William Collins set to start by July, Select Board member Marybeth Mitts backed Maxymillian’s suggestion that a major School Department spending hike be put off for a year pending his arrival at Town Hall. She asked for evidence that salary increases are needed in order to retain talent for administrators, teachers and other staff.