Lee schools chief urges study into regionalizing with Lenox

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LEE -- Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless on Wednesday suggested the town explore forming a regional school district -- possibly with Lenox -- to save taxpayers money and increase educational opportunities for both communities' children.

During a discussion of the budget for the upcoming school year, McCandless said a decade of declining enrollment and rising school budgets in Lee are reasons the town's school system can no longer go it alone.

Since 2003, student enrollment has fallen from more than 900 to 791 as of March 1. During the same 10-year period, the Lee school budget has jumped $1.56 million -- a 25 percent spike in expenditures.

"I suggest, as a town, it's time to explore another model," he said. "If you're into regional school districts, Lee and Lenox would be a dream come true."

The remarks came as the superintendent and the Lee School Committee officially presented to the town's Finance Committee a proposed $8.14 million preliminary budget for fiscal year 2014 -- a $256,000 increase from the current spending plan of $7.88 million. School officials said the 3.25 percent spending hike takes into account potential teacher pay raises, little if any increase in state aid and proposed staff reductions.

The school board will continue budget deliberations March 26 and hold an official public hearing on the spending plan April 9. Once the seven-member board adopts a budget next month, it will forward the plan to the annual town meeting in May.

While McCandless called the budget request "reasonable," Finance Committee member Edward Finnegan felt the increase was out of step with other town departments that came in at or less than level-funded.

"I don't know how much more of a burden this can be on taxpayers in the town of Lee," Finnegan said.

Committee member Freda Grimm added, the school budget increase may "start the talk" of regionalization.

McCandless, who is leaving Lee to become the Pittsfield school superintendent in July, said his comments regarding regionalization were his own and not on behalf of the school system or committee.

But when asked about a possible Lee-Lenox scenario, he said it could begin as two school systems sharing a single superintendent and other administrative positions.

"I'm not convinced every school district in Berkshire County having its own superintendent makes sense," he said.

McCandless believes a combined central administration could lead to a formal regional school district with Lee and Lenox each keeping its elementary school. In addition, Lee Middle and High School could become a single Grade 6 through 8 middle school with a Grade 9 through 12 high school in Lenox.

The School Committee indicated that exploring regionalization would be a lengthy, time-consuming discussion.

"It would be a long process," noted School Committee Chairwoman Susan Harding. "This is not a next year thing."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.


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