Budget focus group’s finding presented to Lake Placid school board

LAKE PLACID – A new community group tasked with providing input on the Lake Placid Central School District’s 2013-14 budget has presented its findings to the district’s Board of Education.

Bill Rusak of HR and ADR Services LLC in Lake Placid presented the Budget Advisory Group’s report last night at the Library Media Center at the middle-high school. Board members in attendance said the information and input will be helpful as the board crafts the next budget.

“This input has been great,” board member John Hopkinson said. “The board is really struggling with this situation. The costs are going up way, way faster than revenues. Revenues, essentially, are not going up at all. A lot of the cost increases that we’re looking at are either mandated or contract driven to such a degree that the discretionary options that we have are very limited.”

Budget figures are still preliminary, but Hopkinson said meeting the state’s tax levy cap will require the board to make spending cuts of $500,000 to $750,000.

“That’s not just a clerk here or a program here,” he said. “That’s major.”

The district could face annual budget deficits of $500,000 to $1 million between 2014 and 2017, according to numbers in the report.

Rusak was hired by the district earlier this month to facilitate several meetings with different focus groups. He then compiled the information from those meetings into one overarching report, which the board will use to guide some of its budget decisions.

The idea behind the focus groups was to gather input from different parts of the community. Representatives included teachers and staff, parents and students, business leaders, government officials and members of civic organizations.

In building his report, Rusak said he included specific and general comments and recommendations. He said he purposely avoided attributing comments to specific people because he didn’t want anyone to withhold feedback. He also stressed that he didn’t embellish or censor comments from Budget Advisory Group members.

Rusak said there was general consensus that the district needs to balance costs with revenues and “do more with less.” He said focus group members also understand there are two agendas for the budget: “Fix today quick, and lay out a plan for the future.”

For academics, Rusak said most Budget Advisory Group members like the three-principal model the board is pursuing, but they want flexibility for the future. He said they also want a better understanding about unfunded state mandates that drive up costs for the district.

The report showed the focus groups grappled with some specific questions. Line items like a $6,000 expense at the bus garage, $12,500 for drug and alcohol prevention and $6,000 for a tax collector were all questioned.

The groups also brought up some controversial ideas. Under athletics, Rusak said the cost of the school’s hockey program was raised.

“It’s very important, but very expensive,” he said.

Rusak stressed that no one proposed getting rid of hockey – which he called a vital part of Lake Placid’s cultural identity – but people did ask whether other funding sources could be used, like booster clubs, or if less costly transportation methods could be explored.

Participants also raised the possibility of seeking corporate sponsors for sporting events.

Specific cuts were floated, too. The groups asked the board to look into the impact of cutting three teaching positions at the elementary school and 1.5 positions at the middle-high school.

The overall recommendation, Rusak said, is that the board “should do all possible to avoid going to the community” to exceed the tax cap, although group members acknowledged that there may be no choice.

Following the presentation, school board President Mary Dietrich, who sat in on the meeting via Skype, said the plan is to review the report and move forward with suggestions. The board also plans to answer the questions raised in the report, she said.

“They’ve given us some really good ideas, I think, for long-term planning,” Dietrich said. “I think there’s some really valuable information here.”

Other board members, like Herb Stoerr, said it’s refreshing to have the community engaged early on in the budget process.

“This is something that people have been asking for,” added Linda Wallace, one of the Budget Advisory Group’s parent representatives.