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COMMENTARY

Clarence Fanto: Is school spending getting out of line? Let’s take a close look

budget

The author says that with budget season underway for our local school boards, mayors, town select boards, managers and administrators, the challenges to align spending with taxpayers’ concerns about inflation are especially intense.

LENOX — With budget season underway for our local school boards, mayors, town select boards, managers and administrators, the challenges to align spending with taxpayers’ concerns about inflation are especially intense.

That’s especially urgent in communities where education expenses absorb more than half of the annual town budget.

In Lenox, for example, Superintendent Marc J. Gosselin Jr., who began his tenure July 1, pointed out to the town’s Finance Committee this week that budget planning for the next fiscal year included a look back at spending during the pre-pandemic years. He acknowledged that there was “pretty significant underspending” below what was budgeted year to year.

“For a cleaner budget, it made sense to ask our folks to make reductions that matched the actual spending so that we’re not padding the budget, so to speak,” he said.

The savings on a $14.9 million net budget came to just under $60,000, leaving the School Department with a nearly 5 percent increase compared to the current year. The result: A $270,000 gap between the spending plan and what town government leaders are seeking — an increase held to about 3 percent. To close that gap completely could require several personnel reductions, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan has conceded.

Rising costs in special education are a partial cause, but personnel salaries and benefits account for 84 percent of spending, a typical figure regionally and nationally, Gosselin pointed out.

While benefits are stable for the upcoming year, salaries always rise, as most of the staff is paid based on contract details negotiated by their union, the Lenox Education Association. Negotiations on new three-year contracts covering a majority of union-covered employees are continuing.

“What we have now is not a spending problem, but a revenue problem,” the superintendent asserted, noting that the revenue from nonresident school choice students has declined by 10 percent, to $1,535,000, as enrollment dropped during the pandemic, partially because of social distancing limits set by the district. A slight increase in the number of nonresident students above the typical 40 percent districtwide enrollment target is anticipated for the 2022-23 school year.

Beyond immediate budget pressures, the new superintendent offered some groundbreaking ideas not often heard in school systems that typically are closely tied to tradition.

Going against standard practice would be “zero-based budgeting,” rather than the typical “level services” approach.

“If we were to reimagine schools and say this is the perfect educational program, is the one we’re offering right now the one that we would necessarily pick?” Gosselin asked.

“If it’s not, what are some of the things we’d like to see that would look different, and what would be some of the trade-offs we would make to get to a package of programming that gets our kids optimally tooled for career readiness while also addressing the needs of the community in a way that is financially responsible.”

All that may involve “some degree of right-sizing,” he told the Finance Committee members.

A 16-year look back at school spending compiled by Vaughan, the School Committee chairman, shows that the 3 percent increase year by year has been consistent, on average, during that period. Some years have been higher, especially more recently, but the overall commitment to the targeted 3 percent has prevented staff realignments, such as a curriculum director, as well as other enhancements. Total employment in the district has been stable, at about 164 over the past decade.

“The downside to always having a level-services budget is that we can never look beyond and say, ‘This would be really helpful to the district,’” Vaughan commented. He and Gosselin suggested that the 3 percent annual increase target merits reconsideration. A greater focus on advancing the district’s math and science curriculums is needed, the superintendent stated.

Building a budget based on what the schools want to offer, and scoping out what that would cost, is Gosselin’s recommendation.

“It’s quite rewarding and refreshing to be looking at what you need to add but also focusing on a subtraction opportunity,” Finance Committee member David Carpenter told the superintendent.

For me, the bottom line is Gosselin’s remark that, after meeting state education department course and graduation requirements, “then we have the ability to play some jazz and figure out what do we want to do with our kids, what serves the needs of our community. And asking the kids themselves: ‘What do you guys want to see; where do you want to go; what are the things you need?”

What a novel concept, to give students — the ultimate stakeholders — the opportunity to participate in brainstorming the best pathway to a meaningful, relevant education.

By no means should students have the final say on what’s best for their school system — that’s the ultimate responsibility of faculty, principals, elected School Committee members and their appointed superintendent. Obviously, parents should have their say as well, though not as partisan arbiters of curriculum decisions and educational standards.

A suggestion: Why not set up auditorium meetings — probably more effective than online surveys — to gain insights from students about their concerns and priorities for academic and nonacademic programs once state requirements are satisfied. Similar sessions could be planned for parents and faculty.

That would be educational — for students as well as for their teachers and administrators.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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