LENOX — A requested 3 percent cap on any increase in school spending next year appears to be manageable without cutting services.
During a presentation to the School Committee on Monday night, interim schools Superintendent William Cameron cited guidance from the town administrator and Finance Committee that the town’s budget for fiscal 2022 is “neither dire nor robust.”
That, he said, puts the school district in a strong position as it prepares its own budget for the coming year.
“This is not the budget of a district in retreat, or in the process of retrenching,” he said. “This budget preserves everything that has made the Lenox Public Schools excellent.”
But, he noted that the current bottom line is a work in progress, as it exceeds “by a small but stubborn amount” the town’s guidance. Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen seeks to limit the total increase for operations, including health insurance and retirement benefits, to 3 percent over current-year spending.
“We’ve been asked to sustain what we have,” said Cameron, who has been interim superintendent for 15 months. During that time, he reported that he has proposed adding personnel for “upgraded operations, coordination of instruction and more effective teaching.”
Examples he listed include a districtwide curriculum coordinator and a coach for teachers at Lenox Memorial Middle and High and Morris Elementary schools to help improve student learning “by making more constructive use of personal electronic devices” by adding sophisticated software. Cameron also has suggested adding a vice principal for the middle school.
“Each of these steps, if taken, would bring substantial benefits to the district,” he said. “None of them is proposed in this budget. I cannot see that reducing our instructional workforce to make possible these positions, or eliminating traditional and popular aspects of our overall programming, is the way to pay for such additions. That would be adding a benefit by causing a detriment.”
But, the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year “will preserve everything that has made the Lenox Public Schools a highly successful district,” Cameron said.
He voiced gratitude for the support of residents and school officials “in a time of fiscal uncertainty.”
The town leadership’s 3 percent limit on an increase would cut the projected budget from $14,501,000 — up 5 percent from this year — to $14,310,000 for the 2022 fiscal year beginning July 1, according to Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Melissa Falkowski. “That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working toward,” she told the School Committee.
“With the insurance benefits, it’s difficult to get to 3 percent,” said School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan. Some years, there has been no increase in the cost of insurance benefits, he added, but in other years, it was 8 to 10 percent or more.
“Some of that’s very difficult to control,” he stated. “It looks like a very small increase this year, which is good. But, historically, it’s difficult, when you factor in the insurance benefits, to come to the 3 percent that the town manager and the Finance Committee would like us to meet.”
The School Department needs to find $190,000 in cuts to meet that goal. Falkowski is working with Cameron and the school principals to identify the savings.
“They’re the ones on the ground and running the buildings,” she said.
Falkowski cited contract obligations for pay raises to all unionized employees and nonunion administrators. Current contracts continue through next year.
Personnel expenses, about $11 million, account for 85 percent of the operating budget, not including health insurance benefits, she noted. Adding the benefits bumps the share of personnel costs up to 88 percent of the operating budget.
School choice and tuition revenue help offset operating expenses. For school choice, revenue for fiscal 2022, representing the current year’s collections, is estimated at $1.7 million. Other sources of revenue would yield an additional $155,000.
Falkowski pointed out that the additional funding support, other than school choice, has declined because of the coronavirus pandemic — for example, lack of Duffin Theater rentals and ticket sales from stage performances.
The net operating budget, including the revenue, is projected at $11,200,000, a 6 percent increase over the current net budget.
The operating budget does not include capital spending, nor does it reflect revenue from incoming grants, Falkowski said.
Insurance benefits, currently $3.1 million, are expected to rise to $3,260,000, a 2 percent increase, she said.
Asked about the impact of the pandemic on the planned budget, Falkowski cited licenses for technology needed for remote learning, specifically software.
The School Committee will be doing a deep dive into the spending details at a series of Monday evening meetings over the next few weeks, scheduled for Feb. 8, March 1 and March 22, the date of the official budget hearing and final committee vote on the spending plan.