At an emotional annual town hall meeting, Lenox residents strongly supported the school’s budget. Officials had advised against | Berkshires Center

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LENOX — Against the recommendation of the city’s select committee of council and finance, residents on Thursday overwhelmingly approved the school department’s $14.9 million spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year.

Residents voted in favor of the education budget by an 83% to 17% margin. They also supported a municipal tax levy – the amount to be raised through taxes – of $29,663,000.

The turnout was just over 7%, or 272 voters out of 3,776 registered voters.

Lenox’s school budget is approved by the Select Board. Now it’s up to the voters of the city

Prior to the vote, City Manager Christopher Ketchen pointed out that while the Schools Committee was proposing a spending increase of $697,000 this year, the Board and Finance Select Committee had requested an increase of $426,000.

“We haven’t been able to reconcile the ‘universal difference’ internally, so it’s up to you, as it should be,” he said.

Presenting the education budget, school committee chairman Robert Vaughan cited Lenox Memorial Middle and High School’s recent US News ranking as No. 1 in the county and 29th out of 378 high schools in Massachusetts, while Morris s is ranked third in the county and 176th among 1,182 elementary schools statewide.

“That’s what your support has helped us accomplish,” Vaughan told voters. He attributed the 4.9% increase in the school’s budget in part to the expiration of federal grants during the pandemic as well as pandemic-related shortfalls to offset a 3.1% increase in actual expenses.

“Over the years we have sought to bring parity to all departments of the city,” said manager David Roche, “which means we treat everyone the same, without valuing any group of employees over another.”

He urged a “no” on the school budget to assure city workers that constituents “appreciate their services equally and allow us to move forward with the school committee. It’s time to work together for the benefit of the whole city.

Finance committee chair Kristine Cass, noting the group’s 5-1 vote against the school budget – she was the only supporter – said ‘members did not vote against the school budget because they don’t like our schools or want to save money by making cuts. We are all very proud of the quality of our schools and the role they play in our community.

But she said “unruly budgets put our schools and our city at risk. Simply put, it is not possible to maintain outstanding schools and continually improve them if we are not using our resources as efficiently as possible.

Describing the school budget as “unaccountable”, Cass said that “great schools deserve a great budget. We should all keep the school budget at the same high level that we would keep any budget. She called for significant savings and efficiencies and expressed the hope that by working with the school committee on next year’s budget, the finance committee could enthusiastically support it.

Morris School parent Kristen Moriarty denied that school committee members are recommending frivolous spending and that “it might be out of place” to target school staff, who make up 82% of the budget.

“The way to show our appreciation to our teachers this week and send a message to our kids that they matter is to embrace this school budget,” she said.

A majority of the dozen residents who spoke during the debate backed the spending plan. Charles Guyer, a middle and high school senior, said transferring to the school helped him secure “a good future” through strong academic programs, small classrooms and one-on-one meetings with teachers.

Ahead of the intense discussion and vote on the school budget, Ketchen, the city manager, painted an optimistic picture of the city’s finances, with some caveats. The city’s total spending from all sources is pegged at nearly $31 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year beginning July 1, up about 6% from the current year.

Among its key points:

• Tax levy of $29,663,000 is 4.1% higher than current year, based on conservative state aid and local revenue assumptions and limited use of the city’s nearly $4.2 million in “free cash” reserves, fueled by record hospitality tax revenue.

• The residential tax rate, reflecting the 4.1% increase, should be $11.28 per $1,000 of estimated property value, compared to $10.84 currently.

• According to the average assessed value of a single-family home of $467,000, the tax bite of $5,275 would be up $207 compared to this year.

• Many very large capital improvement projects are underway, including a federally mandated sewage treatment plant upgrade, the costliest requirement in the city’s history ; a public safety facility; Improvements to the town hall and developments to the municipal library, public works and the college and high school.

The city’s ability to levy additional taxes stands at nearly $3.9 million, a “soft reserve” that could be deployed without a waiver to Proposition 2 1/2, “but we estimate it is better served in your bank account than in ours,” Ketchen said.

With a commitment to “maintain services while combating the inflationary pressures we all face, we seek to manage the tax burden while meeting service needs and legal obligations,” he told voters.

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