Dire warnings for Tupper Lake school budget future

TUPPER LAKE – The school board president is asking the people of Tupper Lake to write letters to the state asking for help with a dire budget outlook in coming years.

School board President Dan Mansfield said at a Monday night school budget forum that the board just came from a meeting with financial advisers, and they painted a grim picture. The district is looking at a projected $2 million deficit by 2015, Mansfield said.

“This is ridiculous,” Mansfield said. “I mean, we’re looking at being put in a situation where the government of New York is not increasing the aid it gives us. … We have mandates that have never been reduced or changed, even though that was a promise when they did the tax cap.”

Three years ago, the district laid off about 25 percent of its staff, and Mansfield said something like that may have to happen again. He also said the board may have to look at cutting all sports, arts and extracurricular activities.

Mansfield said he doesn’t like the idea of doing that. He said he knows how important extra-cirriculars are to student success, noting that he likely wouldn’t have finished high school if he didn’t have wrestling to keep him interested in school.

“We’re not going to have a choice if we’re $2 million in the hole,” Mansfield said.

Mansfield blamed the state for the district’s problems.

“I don’t think they care about the education of our students,” Mansfield said.

He said state legislators need to either get rid of the gap elimination adjustment that has taken a bite out of school aid in the last few years or increase foundation aid, the main source of state funding for school districts, which has been frozen the last few years.

In a presentation during the budget forum, district Superintendent Seth McGowan outlined the way the state has cut aid to the district in recent years.

In the 2009-10 school year, the district got $8.8 million from the state, which made up about 54 percent of the district’s budget. But that number dropped off the following year, even more the next year, and has only slightly increased since then.

He and district Business Manager Garry Lanthier are projecting $7.65 million in state aid for the 2013-14 school year.

“We can’t afford to operate with these costs and such small amount of increases in state aid,” McGowan said.

A handful of people showed up to offer comments at the budget forum. Lorraine Lewis said that with her increased property value, her school taxes increased by about 10 percent.

“I’m deeply concerned about that,” Lewis said.

She questioned why the district rehired some teachers last year in the wake of the layoffs a few years earlier if it would just mean more layoffs in the future.

Lewis said the district had a vote for overriding the state-imposed tax cap last year, though it actually stayed under the tax cap limit with a 3.39 percent increase in the tax levy, as McGowan and other district officials told her.

Trish Anrig asked whether the school board will consider combining the middle/high school and the L.P. Quinn Elementary School into one building as enrollment continues to decline. She said that could mean a big savings.

“Instead of cutting programs, cut facilities,” Anrig said.

Mansfield said the district will have to consider that.

“That’s a reasonable assumption,” Mansfield said. “It’s something that might have to happen.”

Meredith Warwick asked if the civic center could be sold to the town or to the hockey groups that use it.

“It seems like that’s a high budget,” Warwick said.

Mansfield said the board has been looking at that. In the past, it has decided that the community worth is too great to get rid of it, but with a $30,000 deficit last year, it may be something that has to be re-examined.

There’s a task force looking at whether the civic center can bring in more revenue, McGowan said. He said he’s confident that group can figure something out that will make the civic center more profitable.

McGowan also noted that selling the center implies that someone would want to buy it.

“There’s not a whole lot of people knocking at our doors for that,” he said.