Few concerns at Saranac Lake school budget hearing

SARANAC LAKE – There were just a handful of comments from the public at a hearing Tuesday night on the Saranac Lake Central School District’s proposed $28 million budget for the 2013-14 school year.

Only two audience members – Saranac Lake resident Jon Vinograd and school board candidate Shir Filler – asked questions following a budget presentation by Dan Bower, the district’s assistant superintendent for business.

Vinograd described this as the “swan song” budget for Superintendent Gerald Goldman, who is retiring. He noted that during an earlier public meeting on the budget Goldman had speculated that, sooner or later, the district might have to exceed the state’s property tax cap in order to prevent cutting into its core academic programs.

That didn’t happen this year, as the proposed tax levy increase is 3.67 percent, just under the district’s 3.79 percent state tax levy limit.

Vinograd asked what school officials plan to do “so that next year or maybe the year after you won’t have to exceed the cap.”

“It’s not clear to me that the taxpayers will approve any puncturing of the cap at all,” he said.

Goldman said there likely would have been more serious discussions about exceeding the tax cap next year had the state Legislature not provided an additional $500,000 in aid to the district, above what Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed in his executive budget.

“I think you’ll have to search for your own reasons why the state chose to pump some more money into these school districts,” Goldman said. “It was no sort of miracle work that we did. We were in the process of trying to get below that number the governor gave us, and someone came along with $550,000. You can imagine that made our work a lot easier.”

Looking at the bigger picture, however, Goldman said ballooning health-care and pension costs will force the district to make some tough decisions in years to come, unless there’s no reform or relief from the state.

Board member Clyde Baker said long-range budget planning will begin earlier next year – sometime in July or August. In years past, those discussions haven’t started until November or December.

Another board member, Terry Tubridy, said he’s concerned about increasing the tax levy, but he noted that the district has put off several important capital projects due to its budget constraints over the last few years.

“We have a track here that’s rapidly getting to the point where if we don’t resurface it, it’s going to be a replacement, which doubles or triples the cost,” Tubridy said. “We’ve got the library situation that’s going on in the high school, and at some point we’re just going to have to go for it.”

While there are no capital projects on the ballot this year, the district is asking voters to approve the acquisition of three new school buses at a maximum cost of $330,000. In response to questions from Vinograd and Filler, Bower said that expense is not included in the proposed budget. If voters approve the proposition, the bond payments will be added to the district’s expenditures and be spread out over five years, Bower said.

The proposed budget stands at $28,080,442, which represents a 2.91 percent increase in spending. Even with the additional aid, the district had to resolve a $455,000 budget gap. The budget would close the gap by not filling vacancies and cutting at least four positions: an administrator, an employee in the purchasing department, one information technology position and an English language arts teacher. The district is also eliminating two teaching assistants, completely contracting out its universal pre-kindergarten program and eliminating summer school for middle and high school students.

When voters go to the polls next week, in addition to the budget and the bus proposition, they will also be asked to approve $137,467 for the Saranac

Lake Free Library and pick two school board candidates from a field of four: Esther Arlan, Baker, Filler and Tracey Schrader. Each seat carries a three-year term.

Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the district offices at the high school. In order to vote, you have to be a U.S. citizen age 18 or over, be registered to vote in general elections with the board of elections or with the district, and be a resident of the district within 30 days of the date of the budget vote.

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