IM this article to a friend!

March 20, 2003

TM members learn the state of Lexington public schools

From: Lexington Minuteman, MA - Mar 20, 2003

By Brian Kelly

What is the state of the public schools in Lexington? That is exactly the question Town Meeting members wanted to know before the annual meeting begins Monday. Members were provided with answers at the TMMA Information Session at Clarke Middle School last week.

"The Lexington Public School system has earned a reputation for educational excellence. Today it is more difficult that ever, but we will work closely with the town side to come up with a budget that is fair and equitable," said Superintendent Joanne Benton, who gave a presentation on the state of the schools. "We are asking for an eight percent increase in funding that will allow us to move forward on the priorities we set last year. The budget takes into account the decrease in town revenue, decrease in state aid, and an increase in benefits."

Benton started off by noting Lexington is a growing school district, with enrollment expected to increase by 36 students next year, from the current 5,992 to a projected 6,028. While middle school enrollment is expected to decrease from 1,522 to 1,496 students, elementary projections show a jump from 2,704 to 2,725, and at the high school, the jump 1,766 to 1,807.

The superintendent said that while the ages of Lexington's teachers vary, a large number of them are experienced professionals. Nearly 30 percent of the teachers are over the age of 55 and within five years of retirement eligibility. About 42 percent are between the ages of 30 and 49, and 16 percent are 50 to 54 years old. There is also some fresh ideas and methods being brought to the group, as 12 percent of the teachers are under the age of 30. These teachers, who have an average class size of 22 to 24 students at the secondary level and 20 at the elementary level, earn an average salary of $57,360. In addition, 82 percent of them hold advanced degrees.

When determining this year's school budget, Benton said, "We used the four Cs: collegiality, collaboration, communication, and cooperation."

In December, the school department came up with a budget for fiscal 2004 of $68.4 million, which was almost a $7 million increase from the $61,501,836 that was appropriated in fiscal 2003. However, to reduce the amount of the override, they were able to cut almost $2 million in February from the original number, leaving the School Committee's recommended budget for fiscal 2004 at $66.4 million. Of the items cut, $1,118,000 were existing programs, while $930,000 was in new programs that were to be implemented, most notable full day kindergarten.

Why an 8 percent budget increase in these tough times?

"Our health care costs rose thirty-eight percent, staff wages went up about three percent. SPED tuition and consulting services increased twenty-seven percent, and expenses went up almost one percent," said Benton, who noted that $948,000 in the elementary schools, $441,000 in the middle schools, $777,000 at the high school level, and $426,000 system-wide are still at risk should the override not pass.

"This budget accomplished the objectives of fostering reasonable class size, it enhances the work in literacy and numeracy for all students, and retains our outstanding art, music, and physical education programs. It permits the schools to continue to address professional development around differentiated instructional strategies, maintains support for ongoing initiatives, and provides for proactive planning to address professional staff retirement and turnover," said the superintendent.

One issue was the school's capital budget, which asks for $1,778,000, with $1,500,000 of the money being for acoustical modifications to classrooms at Lexington High School. The issue is listed as Article 10 in this year's Warrant.

The article states that 12 hearing-impaired students are set to enter the high school next year, with five of them having cochlear implants which provide sound to those who have profound nerve deafness.

"Existing classrooms at the high school do not meet the special requirements for reverberation time and background noise considered acceptable for teaching students with severe hearing impairment. School officials believe that many children without hearing impairments will also benefit significantly from the availability of classrooms with reduced noise levels and improved acoustics. ... The principal modifications would be adding acoustical ceiling tiles, acoustical wall panels and, in some cases, carpeting. Where necessary, HVAC systems would also be modified, including removing unit ventilators and substituting ductwork connected to existing rooftop HVAC units."

School Committee Chairman Scott Burson said the number of classrooms that would be affected was originally 20, but it's now down to 17.

At the beginning of the session, state Reps. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, and Tom Stanley, D-Waltham, gave brief overviews of the state's fiscal situation. Kaufman noted this year there will be disproportionately less money for schools in towns like Lexington than in poorer communities because of reduced state aid.

"The reality is we have this $3 billion dollar problem and we have to look at it reasonably," said Stanley.

"In past years there has been a lot of fighting in the Legislature over how much money to spend. I don't think we'll have that fighting this year [because there is no money to spend]," added Kaufman.

© Copyright by the  Herald Interactive Advertising Systems, Inc.