Survey: Strong support for Saranac Lake school arts

SARANAC LAKE – Saranac Lake Central School District residents were eager to name the school programs and services they’d like to see preserved in a survey on the district’s 2013-14 budget, but they were much less willing to identify programs that should be cut or reduced.

Chad McCarthy, the district’s special education committee chairman, reviewed the results of the survey school officials conducted in February during their so-called budget “listening tour” at last week’s school board meeting. The tour included a series of meetings around the district and an online survey, which school leaders said would help them develop a budget that reflects the priorities of the community.

“This was a very non-, unscientific survey, and we did it on purpose,” McCarthy said. “We figured not everybody would be able to get out to our listening tour so we wanted people to have an anonymous way to give us feedback.”

McCarthy said the survey allowed people to provide multiple responses to the same question, and some people likely completed more than one survey “thinking this was some sort of referendum on what we were going to cut or not cut.”

A total of 288 surveys were completed. Thirty-three percent of the respondents identified themselves as parents of children in the district while another 26 percent said they were community members with no children in the district. Another 15 percent identified themselves as district employees, and 14 percent said they were students.

When asked what programs, services or initiatives should be maintained as a high priority in next year’s budget, 137 people said music and 80 said art. Fifty people named athletics as high priority, and 45 percent said technology, with lesser amounts for various other programs. A total of 553 people responded to this question.

The survey’s second question asked respondents to suggest programs or services the district should consider reducing or eliminating. Of the 403 people who answered the question, 125 people said sports, although McCarthy said that didn’t necessarily mean they want all sports cut.

“We had responses, ‘Let’s combine some sports,’ or people said, ‘Which ones are the more important?’ or ‘Should we have less sports rather than more?'” McCarthy said. “I don’t want you to walk away thinking these are 125 votes saying we don’t want sports.”

Seventy-one people said other programs should be cut or reduced, and 53 said they don’t want any cuts. Forty-seven respondents said the district’s administration should be trimmed.

The district asked for suggestions for cost savings or ways to increase efficiency. Forty-nine people said the district should combine or cut administrative positions, while 45 people didn’t have any suggestions. Forty people made energy efficiency recommendations, and 32 suggested taking a closer look at the district’s bus system.

Asked for ideas to increase revenue, McCarthy said 87 of the 281 respondents didn’t make any suggestions. That was followed by 43 people who suggested single ideas – everything from advertising on school buses to having students pay to participate in extra-curricular activities. Forty-two people said the district should exceed the tax cap, 39 suggested school officials pursue more grants and launch fundraising initiatives, and 20 people recommended charging admission fees.

The final question on the survey asked people to identify areas of the budget they’d like more information on. McCarthy said 122 people said none, 37 said they want more information on employee salaries and benefits and 29 asked for details on the cost of sports programs.

Dan Bower, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, said approximately 80 to 90 people showed up for the four “listening tour” meetings held at various locations in Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale. The biggest crowd attended the last meeting, held in the Harrietstown Town Hall, which drew many vocal supporters of the district’s art and music programs.

“We appreciate everybody that showed up,” Bower said. “It was really, for the first time we’ve done it, a pretty successful venture. The next step in the process is we’ll move forward as a Budget Advisory Committee and a board on setting priorities for preserving everything we can and still closing our budget gap, which remains at $1.3 million.”

Bower said he recently submitted the district’s tentative property tax levy limit to the state Education Department.

“The initial calculation for our tax cap is 3.6 percent, but that’s tentative and subject to change right up until when the budget is adopted,” he said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or