Lenox sees little financial impact on school budget from shutdown
LENOX — With schools remaining closed until at least May 4, Finance Committee members want to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the town's current education budget.
During a virtual meeting with the Finance Committee, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan said there have been some savings since the March 13 state-ordered shutdown of all schools. Typically, unspent funds approved by annual town meeting voters for education spending are returned to the town at the end of the school year.
"There are no real exceptional expenses so far based on the fact that the kids aren't in school and regular school operations have ceased," said interim Superintendent William Cameron. He agreed that savings are expected, though "not monumental sums."
There is reduced spending on utilities as well as savings on overtime costs by the custodial staff because there are no events in the schools, he pointed out.
The district is also saving funds since substitute teachers aren't being hired, said Melissa Falkowski, assistant superintendent of business and operations.
Vaughan also noted that Falkowski has been authorized to renegotiate contracts with Dufour, the school bus company, and other suppliers to achieve some additional savings.
According to previrus projections, for 2020-21 total net school spending is likely to be close to $14 million (reflecting revenue such as school choice but not including capital purchases and projects) out of a town budget estimated at about $29 million.
Finance Committee member Michael Feder asked about enrollment capacity under existing staff levels and the current physical plant.
"Probably without anything dramatic happening, we could add about 40 to 50 students at Morris Elementary School without impacting staffing, and 30 to 40 at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School," Vaughan estimated.
About 40 percent of the students in the Lenox district are nonresidents, primarily from Pittsfield. Total enrollment in the public schools is 778, including prekindergarten, and has been stable in recent years. There are 318 students, prekindergarten through fifth grade, at Morris and 460 at the middle and high school.
Feder questioned whether adding more school choice students could significantly boost the district's cash flow, "which could be very useful in terms of the Select Board trying to manage finances we're likely to see going forward."
Vaughan cited the "town character of the schools" as the reason for the informal cap of 40 percent of choice students districtwide, and no more than 50 percent in a grade.
The goal is to not let nonresidents outweigh the number of local students as a matter of "public perception of who are the schools for," he said. "We want to make sure we recognize that first and foremost, we're the Lenox Public Schools. We'd love to have families move in, but in the absence of families moving in, choice is a good option" but only up to a point, to avoid changing the character of the schools.
Finance Committee member David Neubert said that "choice hurts property values, because if fewer people move to Lenox, the more available choice is."
Feder emphasized that he was not proposing turning the Lenox district into "Pittsfield annex or change the nature of the schools. But choice is a significant potential source of additional cash in the event the town loses significant revenues."
He suggested making room for more choice students in the higher grades at the middle and high school, which could yield $250,000 in revenue to help offset anticipated declines in lodging and meals tax revenue for the town.
"I'm not looking for a silver bullet," Feder said, adding that he's hoping to find some additional funding for the town budget if needed. "I'm trying to suggest that we be open-minded to leverage what might be available to us."
Clarence Fanto can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.
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