School board approves budget with 7.6% spending hike

TUPPER LAKE – At a special meeting Monday night, the school board approved a 2013-14 budget that will increase by 7.64 percent over the current year.

If voters approve the budget May 21, the school district would likely have to borrow $300,000 from its unreserved, unappropriated fund balance as well as $200,000 from its unemployment reserves.

That would mean about an 8.35 percent, or $610,000, increase in the district’s tax levy, exceeding the state-imposed tax cap of an increase of 4.76 percent, or $348,080.

District Superintendent Seth McGowan said the board needed to approve total budget numbers Monday night and give the public a reasonable expectation for the tax levy, but it didn’t need to know the exact amount and the details of how it will get there for a few days still.

He said he and the administrative team exchanged a number of phone calls and emails with the school board over the last week. They found about $110,000 more in reductions since McGowan’s public budget update last Monday, including $30,000 in athletic reductions from the district’s junior varsity teams, $10,800 by changing an afternoon bus run, renegotiating a technology upgrade contract that will save $10,000 and $60,000 in various other small areas.

At the last meeting, board member Dawn Hughes suggested that the district approach the teachers’ union and see if it would be possible to increase the amount of money teachers contribute to their health insurance. When asked for an update on that after Monday’s meeting, McGowan said a meeting had happened, but he didn’t feel it would be appropriate to discuss it any further in public.

That puts total spending in the budget at $17,233,794, a $1.2 million increase over the current year’s budget.

With $16.12 million in total income expected, there is a gap of $1.11 million, which is $762,711 over the state tax cap.

Without dipping into reserves, the tax levy would increase by 15.19 percent. But McGowan gave the board several options for where they want to end up, showing incrementally what the levy increase would be if the district makes use of various amounts of reserves and fund balance.

At a meeting last week, McGowan had discussed the option of using the $500,000 in the district’s Employee Benefits Accrued Liability Reserve to lower the tax levy. After looking into the option, though, school officials believe it isn’t allowed.

“It turns out that that’s really not a legal option for us,” McGowan said.

He said that if the district uses those funds, it may lose any hope of political help with its budget problems. He said the amount in the reserve is excessive, since it would be enough to cover the district if every single employee in the district retired last year.

McGowan asked the board where they want to end up with the tax levy increase. Board President Dan Mansfield said he has a hard time asking the people of Tupper Lake to pay a high tax levy.

“The unfortunate thing is the more you take from that is the more you’re going to miss next year,” Mansfield said. “There’s just no way that we can ask the people to pay a 15 percent tax levy (increase). … The lower the number, the better. That’s my opinion at this point.”

McGowan had suggested a levy increase of as low as 7.67 percent, which would use $350,000 from the district’s unappropriated fund balance, but other board members weren’t comfortable going that low. Board members Paul Ellis and Mark Yamrick said 8.35 percent was more the area they were willing to go, because they don’t want to take any more from reserves.

“It only increases the financial dilemma we’re going to be in for the following year,” Ellis said.

If nothing changes with state aid by next year, Yamrick asked if the district would have to face layoffs due to the lack of reserves. McGowan said that would be likely.

Yamrick asked if there are other positions that are being hired after a retirement, resignation or staff realignment, and whether any of them could be not hired for next year. It would be a shame if they were hired for one year only to be laid off the following year, he said.

McGowan said there are only a few positions like that, and based on extensive conversations the administrative team has had, he wouldn’t recommend not hiring people for those positions.

“It’s our feeling that those are important positions for the community, to the school community, and we would like to see them included,” McGowan said.

They include a school psychologist, a guidance counselor and special eduction positions. As the town farthest from Malone, the Franklin County seat, Tupper Lake is farthest from mental health services that the county is the main provider for, so the school district is relied upon heavily for those services.

“The emotional and mental health needs of our students are only on the rise,” McGowan said.

Other board members said they might consider getting rid of those kinds of positions, but they would need more time. They said it might be a good idea to start taking a more detailed look at things like that in next year’s budget as soon as this one is complete.

Also at Monday’s meeting, McGowan showed a chart that illustrated the district’s staffing levels shrinking in recent years as student enrollment declined.

Piercefield resident Lorraine Lewis argued at the last board meeting that the district isn’t reducing its faculty enough to be in line with its enrollment decreases.

McGowan’s graph showed the district shrinking its staff and faculty numbers before 2010, then a huge drop in 2010-11, when the district laid off about a quarter of its instructional staff due to serious state cuts. Since then, there have been slow increases as the board felt the school was becoming “educationally insolvent,” but the number is dropping off again slightly this year.

McGowan said the district is nowhere near the staffing levels it was at before 2009-10.

Mansfield closed the Monday meeting by asking the public to approve the budget.

He noted that a number of community members have come to school board meetings throughout the budget process.

“It’s great to see the community care,” Mansfield said. “I know that this is a hard time for our community to take this.”

He said he has been on the board for 10 years and never seen a budget voted down, and he said he’s sure the community will once again support it.

Since it will exceed the tax cap, the district will need a 60 percent supermajority of members of the public to vote in favor of the budget.

The public will get a chance to vote on the budget Tuesday, May 21.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or