LENOX — After identifying a series of savings and newly available grant funding, the School Department has met Town Administrator Christopher Ketchen’s target limiting the proposed education budget for the next fiscal year to a 3 percent increase.
During a resumed School Committee public hearing Monday night, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Melissa Falkowski presented a reduced operating budget total, including benefits and incorporating revenue from school choice and other sources, of $14,198,000.
The previous budget proposed last month, reflecting a 4.7 percent increase over the current year, came to $14,444,000.
Savings from the original budget plan outlined last month were achieved by decreasing “other program expenses,” such as contracted services, equipment and postage, by 10 percent, Falkowski said.
Field trip funding was eliminated, textbook spending was cut by 50 percent, salaries for new hires will be reduced, student activity and coaching stipends will be adjusted, and available grants will be used to offset any allowable expenditures.
The total savings came to $245,832.
Ahead of the committee’s 4-1 budget approval, Lenox Education Association President Mary Cherry pushed back strongly against recent remarks by a Finance Committee member claiming that “there is evidence that the quality of the schools is not what it once was.”
She urged the School Committee to “forcefully refute” the statement by offering evidence to the contrary. Although Cherry did not name the Finance Committee member, it was Michael Feder who made the claim at the remote public meeting.
“We maintain that this statement is false and not supported by evidence,” Cherry asserted. She cited PSAT, SAT, ACT and MCAS test scores, as well as numerous commendations at the state and national level.
She criticized “comments that we find disparaging about our profession and our school system” during the April 1 Finance Committee session. Cherry addressed the proposed budget savings that could lower salaries for newly hired teachers and administrators to fill seven vacancies caused by retirements.
Acknowledging that incoming, younger staffers might be compensated less than senior members, she pointed out that “to handcuff the administration with definitively mandated budget reductions for those hires puts our district in an unnecessary and potentially compromised position.”
It would be more difficult to attract and retain highly qualified candidates, Cherry said, “a stark contrast to how we have filled positions in the past.”
She also commented that “it did not appear money was an obstacle” when the School Committee selected the district’s new superintendent, Mark Gosselin. He begins work July 1 under a four-year contract with a starting salary of $160,000.
Noting that the union representing faculty and other staffers soon will begin negotiations with the School Committee for a new contract to take effect in July 2022, Cherry cited Feder’s description of the Lenox Education Association as “the elephant in the room” and his depiction of the union contract as “the culprit” and “a situation that must be addressed before it gets more out of hand.”
The union leader urged continuing, collaborative contract talks when negotiations begin this fall. But, she cautioned that if the School Committee believes that it needs to ensure “that we not get out of hand, the LEA will not be in a position to continue interest-based bargaining and will be compelled to enter into more positional, traditional collective bargaining.”
Acknowledging that budgets are difficult and challenging, Cherry said that “pitting one part of the town against another by pointing accusatory fingers is divisive. Lenox deserves better.”
In response, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan told Cherry that “we have always been very proud of the work that our educators and staff are doing and the results they’ve been getting. We’re not standing still; we know it’s been a difficult year and you’ve risen to the occasion.”
Continuous improvement is a constant, he added, noting that “we’re still at the top of the schools in Berkshire County, our numbers are as high as they’ve been in any given year. The student body works hard, and the support we get from parents has been outstanding.”
Interim Superintendent William Cameron told the committee that the asbestos cleanup project at the middle and high school has a new “scope of work” from Eco-Genesis Corp., the Pittsfield environmental consultant, which is conducting air-quality testing. The remediation is being performed by Gem Environmental of North Adams.
As a result, the school will remain in full remote mode through April 16, when the April vacation begins, and is expected to reopen to full-time, in-person instruction during the week of April 26, no later than April 28, for the middle school “and hopefully for the high school as well,” Cameron said.