Lee school costs face largest increase in five years

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LEE — Home and business owners will pay 3 percent more in education costs in fiscal 2019, the highest tax-burden increase in five years.

By a 6-0 vote Tuesday, the Lee School Committee adopted a $9.78 million budget for the year starting July 1, up from the current $9.52 million spending plan. Committee Chairwoman Andrea Wadsworth abstained, since she is the Lee Public Schools business manager.

Not all of the new budget will be covered by local taxpayers.

The committee lessened the tax impact by applying $725,000 in school choice funds and $80,000 in other revenue to the proposed budget.

That will keep the local tax burden just under $9 million, a figure that needs annual town meeting approval in May.

Local real estate tax revenue needed to cover the school budget increase will rise nearly $262,000, from $8.72 million to $8.98 million.

"I'm pleased with the budget and glad we're able to maintain services," said veteran School Board member Robert Lohbauer.

Contractual obligations for teachers and staff account for the bulk of the spending increases, as outlined by Lee Public Schools Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein II during a budget public hearing Tuesday night.

Coming changes

Eberwein also announced several educational enhancements starting July 1: increasing from half to full-time the English as a second language position, the return of the summer enrichment program and boosting the special education line item by $100,000 in anticipation of a student being placed in an out-of-district program.

Lee/Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen has said he believes the town can afford the 3 percent hike. But town meeting representative Dayton DeLorme said increased spending in the prekindergarten-through-grade-12 district will be questioned.

"I guarantee it will get asked at the town meeting why the budget goes up when enrollment is going down," he said.

But enrollment has leveled off around the 690 mark since 2015, after more than a decade of steady decline, according to district figures.

School officials project steady enrollment for the 2018-2019 academic year, but that could change if more school choice students opt into the district.

The school board agreed Tuesday to have open enrollment for additional choice students in kindergarten and grades 7 to 12, but to cap the number of new out-of-district children at 10 each in grades 1 to 6.

Combined, Lee Elementary School and Lee Middle and High School have 134 choice students.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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