LENOX — When the annual town meeting turns its attention to school spending in May, voters will decide whether to support a budget that is $270,000 higher than the town had requested.
The School Committee on Monday voted 7-0 to adopt a total school budget of $14.9 million for fiscal 2023, which begins July 1. The vote followed a mandatory public hearing on the spending plan.
The total education cost represents an increase of about 4.9 percent over the current year’s budget. To meet the targeted 3 percent increase set by the Select Board, the committee would have had to trim the spending to about $14.6 million.
“The administration did a terrific job presenting the fiscal challenges, and the committee’s discussion has been the most substantive that I have seen in a very long time,” Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said.
“I trust that they’ve taken the budget as far as they feel they can,” Ketchen told The Eagle. “The net result presents challenges we need to tackle in the next two months. So, we will shift our focus accordingly.”
The town’s Finance Committee will be advising voters whether to approve the school budget request, in an advisory letter to be released ahead of the May 5 annual town meeting. Education would represent nearly half of the total town spending plan of $30.9 million that was approved by the Select Board last month.
Building the budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1 required a detailed, five-year look back at past spending practices, Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr. said during the public hearing. The goal was to make sure budgeting was realistic and relevant in relation to the district’s available financial resources.
Transparency, challenging assumptions and accurate forecasting were among the core values, he said.
“Nothing is taken for granted,” he said. “A rationale and justification of needs was required for all requested expenditures. We certainly don’t want to shortchange the schools, but at the same time we don’t want to use funds unnecessarily, either.”
“This is the first time in some time, maybe ever, that we said to folks, ‘You can’t just tell us we always spent this on these things,’ ” Gosselin said. “It’s an opportunity to ask, ‘Why; what is it for; why is it that amount; how do you know it’s the right amount?’ ”
The budget was planned by Assistant Superintendent for Business & Operations Melissa Falkowski, in collaboration with Gosselin, the rest of the administration’s team, principals and department heads at the town’s two schools.
Gosselin noted that “in some cases, if it was what they’ve always done, it was important for Melissa and I to say, ‘Well, just because you always did it doesn’t mean it’s the right way. Let’s see if we’re parking the right amount of money into these spots.”
Citing town leadership’s historical effort not to exceed a 3 percent School Department increase in any given year, Gosselin said that “looking back, it’s been roughly a decent benchmark, but we do see that, once in a while, there have been times when it did exceed 3 percent to course-correct or adjust for an unforeseen circumstance.”
Select Board Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts urged the committee to consider all the information about budget priorities based on a zero-based approach, the town’s competitive faculty salary levels in the region, and 7 percent inflation rates “in play” as negotiations continue with the Lenox Education Association.
She noted that during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, town departments were asked to make some serious cutbacks since property taxes were frozen at a 0 percent increase two years ago.
“We made serious cutbacks at our library, community center, and put on hold hiring at the DPW, police and fire departments,” Mitts said. “We really took a huge bite of the apple; it was necessary and difficult, and we’re just asking that the School Department take a look at that as well moving forward.”
Mitts suggested that the School Department recognize that while “all of us want to remain competitive regionally in salaries and benefits we offer, we can all make sacrifices in order to move our town forward.”
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan said staying within the town’s suggested 3 percent annual school budget increase always is difficult, but that goal has been achieved in about half of recent years, based on his analysis of spending starting in 2015.
“It’s hard to maintain that, given the fact that we’re a labor-intensive operation,” he stated. Based on the average annual increase of 3.5 percent during the eight years he studied, Vaughan proposed that number as a “more realistic” guideline for future school budgets.
“Maybe at some point it will be proved that you can’t run a great school with 3 percent increases,” said School Committee member Oren Cass. “But, I certainly don’t think we should come to that conclusion before we try. I don’t think we can say we’ve tried, given the way budgeting has been happening.”
Pointing out that school budget increases have exceeded cost-of-living adjustments in recent years, Cass proposed checking into “what kinds of things we can do to be smarter about how we run the schools over time.”