Saranac Lake schools face gaping budget hole

SARANAC LAKE – The Saranac Lake Central School District will have to close a $1.3 million budget gap if it wants to keep its 2013-14 tax levy under the state’s tax cap.

The prospect of having to make yet another round of deep budget cuts, which this time could dig into some of its core programs, has some school officials talking about overriding the tax cap.

“I personally don’t think we’re going to be able to offer the same quality education and programming next year without thinking of going over the cap,” Superintendent Gerald Goldman said at Wednesday night’s school board meeting.

Goldman’s comments followed a preliminary budget presentation by Dan Bower, the district’s assistant superintendent for business. Bower said the district would lose $228,053 in state aid if Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget proposal is adopted as is. The district received $7,287,036 in aid this year while the Executive Budget calls for the district to see $7,058,983 in 2013-14.

Although Cuomo has said his budget would increase state aid for schools across New York by by an average of 4 percent, Bower noted that Saranac Lake would actually see a 3 percent decrease.

“Is that that new math?” quipped board member Clyde Baker.

Among state aid categories, the district would lose half, or $113,832, of its high cost aid, an allocation provided to districts with high property wealth. Transportation aid and building aid would also be reduced.

The loss of aid is nothing new; school officials have come to expect it. Revenue from state aid has dropped by 3.2 percent over the last four years. In response, the district has had to reduce spending to keep its property tax levy in check. The district’s tax levy increase has averaged 1.8 percent over the last four years.

Among the things it’s done to curb spending, the district has closed two elementary schools, Lake Clear and Lake Colby, and eliminated 38 positions, mostly through attrition. Vendor contracts have been renegotiated, projects have been put off, purchasing budgets have been cut, and summer school has been eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels. The district has also increased the amount of fund balance it has applied to the budget, from $600,000 in the 2008-09 school year to $1 million each of the last two years.

“If state aid keeps going down, the only other place for us to get revenue is the tax levy, but that’s capped, so we’d have to cut programs, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Bower said.

If the district wants to stay under the state’s property tax cap in 2013-14, Bower said it will have to find another $1.3 million in savings. How will it get there? Bower said the district will look at its programs and staffing levels, ask for input from the community, lobby state legislators to restore some of its lost aid and look at ways to share services with neighboring districts.

Goldman said the district is facing “some harsh realities about tomorrow and the future.

“We’re at a point now, and it just began to show last year, where we are having to make some very hard decisions about the kind of educational program we’re going to offer our kids and what our school district is going to look like,” Goldman said. “We don’t have the luxury anymore of a declining school population coupled with overstaffing in a number of areas and some buildings that we could close. That’s all done. It’s gone.”

The district has also put off projects it should spend money on, such as a new library at the high school and technology upgrades.

The superintendent said the district will try hard to protect its core instructional programs in the 2013-14 budget, but he said it will be difficult to do so and keep the tax levy under the cap.

“I think if we want to have a school district like we’ve had in the past, we have to have a dialogue about whether we want to exceed the cap or not,” Goldman said.

The state tax cap varies from district to district but last year averaged 2.3 percent statewide. Districts can override the cap, but their budgets would have to be approved by a 60 percent supermajority of their voters. Last year, 48 of the state’s 675 public school districts proposed budgets that exceeded their tax caps, 29 of which were approved.

Earlier Wednesday, district officials held the first in a series of community meetings on the proposed budget for the next school year at the Saranac Lake Adult Center. School leaders are asking the public to identify priority programs, as well as areas they think can be cut, during the so-called “listening tour.” The next meeting will be held at 7 p.m. tonight at Saranac Village at Will Rogers.

The district is also taking input on its budget via a confidential survey at