‘Scary’ outlook for Tupper Lake schools

TUPPER LAKE – Tupper Lake Central School District officials delivered a bleak budget outlook Monday, saying the school system could become insolvent and may have to close its doors in a few years unless it gets more state aid.

“If we don’t have the government give us more money in the next two to three years, it’s going to be hard to stay open,” said board President Dan Mansfield.

“It’s kind of scary that these doors might have to be shut and we may have to look to other districts (to take our students),” said school board member Dawn Hughes. “We’re in trouble.”

The board members’ comments followed a 40-minute budget presentation by Superintendent Seth McGowan. He said the district’s $17.8 million proposed budget for the 2013-14 school year represents a spending increase of $1.8 million, or 11.4 percent over the current budget.

School officials have worked to keep the district’s spending relatively stable in recent years, but that’s no longer possible, McGowan said.

“We are suffering from what I’m referring to as the elastic effect,” he said. “That is, we have plugged all the holes in the dam, battened down the hatches, and we have been under tremendous pressure. Now the levy just broke.”

McGowan named several factors responsible for the spike in spending. The largest is employee benefits, which are up nearly $1 million and now account for 30 percent of the district’s budget. Other factors include big increases in teaching program costs ($362,000) and programs for special-needs students ($321,000).

McGowan said the district still suffers from the implementation of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, a reduction in the district’s aid that began under Gov. David Paterson. Over the last four years, the GEA has cost the district $5.4 million, McGowan said. The superintendent repeated past comments he’s made about the inequity of the GEA, and he showed statistics that illustrate Tupper Lake schools were hit harder by the reductions than any other district in the Adirondack Park.

“That can’t be what they intended with the GEA,” McGowan said. “There’s something broken in their formula.”

McGowan didn’t make a projection of what the district’s tax levy for next year could be because he said doesn’t know how much state aid the district will receive. However, he said the $1.8 million gap for the next school year will have to be made up by increased tax revenue or more state aid.

“It is possible if we receive zero percent state aid that we could potentially deplete every other penny of reserve and fund balance that we have to open our doors next year, but the following year we would be insolvent,” McGowan said. “It would be a disaster to go down that road.”

Three years ago the district laid off 25 percent of its teaching staff due to budget constraints. More layoffs won’t solve the problem now, McGowan said, because any further cuts would reduce instructional time, meaning students wouldn’t meet the requirements to graduate from high school.

The state is prodding school districts to look at shared services and consolidation, but McGowan said he’s not convinced that’s the answer for Tupper Lake. It might make sense to consolidate nearby school districts in more populated areas of the state, but McGowan said the simple geography of combining huge North Country districts like Tupper Lake and Long Lake, whose schools are more than 20 miles apart, doesn’t make sense.

Sharing business offices is also mentioned as another way for school districts to save money. However, McGowan said the $118,000 cost of farming out Tupper Lake’s business services to the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton Board of Cooperative Educational Services would be more expensive over 10 years, even if the district got state aid for 46 percent of that cost, than keeping its own business office for $54,000 a year.

Additional funding is what it will take to solve the district’s problems this year, but in the long run, the state’s aid formula needs to be fixed, McGowan said. He said he and Mansfield recently sat down with state Division of Budget officials to talk about the financial crisis Tupper Lake schools face.

“I think we were very well received, and I hope we get their attention,” Mansfield said. “This year is something we believe we can get by. Next year, if we don’t start seeing some better revenues, it is going to be devastating. We will not have any fund balances, and we’re going to see another $1.6 million deficit.”

McGowan said he, Business Manager Garry Lanthier and FEH BOCES Superintendent Steve Shafer will have a conference call next week with the assistant commissioner of education.

“We’re really at the end of our rope, and he needs to know that, if there’s something he can do,” McGowan said.

The good news, the superintendent said, is the governor has proposed spending $203 million for fiscally distressed schools, although if the GEA formula is used to distribute that aid, which is being discussed, McGowan said it may not help the district as much. The state Senate and Assembly have proposed increasing school aid this year by $415 million and $334 million, respectively. There is also a bill that would eliminate the GEA within three years.

“That’s not fast enough,” McGowan said. “We need it sooner than that. Otherwise, we may not exist.”

“Now we’re at the point where we’re talking about surviving,” Mansfield said, “actually surviving with a viable school that can graduate students and meets the minimum requirements by law.”

“It’s scary times,” said board member Jane Whitmore.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.