LENOX — The proposed school spending plan for 2021-22 has been slimmed down after an agreement brokered by several of the town’s elected officials, working with school district leaders.
The agreement unveiled for the Finance Committee on Thursday evening brings the projected budget down to the 3 percent increase targeted by Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen.
The compromise is expected to save about $245,000 from the originally proposed $14.5 million School Department budget.
It emerged after discussions involving Ketchen, Select Board Chairman Neal Maxymillian, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan, School Committee member Molly Elliot, interim Superintendent William Cameron and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Operations Melissa Falkowski.
During a briefing for the Finance Committee, which had been pushing hard for a school budget reduction from a previous 4.8 percent proposed increase including benefits, Vaughan signaled that the savings would not affect the district’s academic programs.
“We’re definitely going to get to the 3 percent target,” Vaughan assured the committee. But, he deferred most details of the compromise until the full School Committee meets April 5 to review the proposal.
But, Vaughan voiced the belief that the trimmed-down spending plan would neither sacrifice academic quality nor key extracurricular activities driven by the teaching staff and supported by parents and students.
“There are things that will be cut that I’m sure will impact some of the lives of the kids during the school year, but not necessarily the strong academic drivers that we want to maintain,” Vaughan acknowledged in response to questioning by Finance Committee member Michael Feder.
Thus, he suggested, the compromise budget proposal would not require involvement by the Lenox Education Association, which represents faculty and other staff at the two public schools, since the cuts would be settled through discussions by school district administrators.
Vaughan described one reduction as “reduced compensation for new hires” as applicants are interviewed for positions that will be open as of July 1. He also noted cuts in “instructional stipends” reflecting some reductions in the number of clubs and activities to be offered during the 2021-22 school year..
Cameron pointed out that it would be up to the school principals to decide “what kind of limits to put on clubs or activities.” Some of the estimated total of 40 typically offered would be culled to ensure that the budget targets are met.
Vaughan agreed to brief the Finance Committee on the revised budget at an April 8 meeting, three days after the presentation to the School Committee.
Finance Committee members Feder and Kristine Cass, assigned to delve into the education budget, have held several meetings with Vaughan, Cameron and Falkowski. In a statement at Thursday’s meeting, Feder thanked them for being forthcoming and cited Falkowski for providing requested data.
“We want high-quality education,” Feder stated, reading a memo co-authored with Cass. “This is not about saving money by hurting that goal. But, there is evidence that the quality of our schools is not what it once was. It’s far too easy to say it’s because of the pandemic, or to fall back on the historic view that Lenox has the best schools around. We must address where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow.”
But, describing the school budget as “inherently inflationary,” the memo cautioned that it continues to “put pressure on Lenox’s fiscal scenario and on our neighbors’ property taxes.”
Feder and Cass urged progress toward “a financial structure in the schools that will allow us to pursue our desire to be the best, but we cannot rely entirely on higher taxes to get there.”
They described the School Department payroll — it's 85 percent of the total education budget — as “the elephant in the room” since “any increase in salaries and benefits moves significantly to the bottom line and we don’t have the needed room for other initiatives.”
While applauding School Committee members for delaying final approval of its budget proposal and exploring “opportunities for further austerity” ahead of the April 5 meeting, the two Finance Committee members warned that “they cannot continue to ignore the reality that the Lenox Education Association contract is the culprit, and they must begin to address this situation before it gets more out of hand.”
In a previous memo, drafted March 23, before the compromise agreement emerged, Feder and Cass had stated that the Finance Committee would not support the original School Department budget plan and would not recommend it to annual town meeting voters.
Committee Chairman Elliott Morss urged that when annual town meeting voters examine the town’s overall spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1, the school budget proposal should be presented as a separate warrant article for discussion, since it represents about half the total budget. The Finance Committee unanimously approved Feder’s motion strongly endorsing that approach.
Ketchen, the town manager, indicated that there is a “reasonable prospect” that the annual meeting will be deferred beyond the traditional first Thursday in May. The Select Board makes the final decision on the scheduling of the meeting, as well as whether voters would assess the school budget separately from the overall town budget.
This story has been modified to correct the affiliation of Molly Elliot.