Tupper Lake school super aims to answer questions

TUPPER LAKE – Seth McGowan is making it his mission to answer all the questions residents of the Tupper Lake Central School District have about the proposed school budget.

He said at Monday night’s hearing on the second version of the district’s 2013-14 budget that he’s spent time since the original version of the school budget failed in May talking with members of the community on the phone and in person, answering questions they have.

He told the 20 or so people at the hearing that his home number is in the phone book, and he’s committed to helping people understand the school budget, so he’s willing to answer any questions voters may have.

“Our children’s education is too important,” McGowan said.

The original school budget, which would have exceeded the tax cap with a 8.35 percent tax levy increase, was voted down 685 to 512 in May. The second version, approved by the school board last week, comes in a full percentage point below the tax cap with a $274,954 increase, or 3.76 percent, over the current year, for a total tax levy of $7,587,554. It includes the reduction of seven instructional positions, two of those through layoffs.

McGowan said there are topics that come up repeatedly, and once he explains them, people tend to understand and change their tune. He focused an entire section of his budget presentation on those issues, and he called it “You should have explained that.” He noted that he’s gone over some of these issues in past meetings, but not everything gets picked up by the media, since he has no control over what goes into a news story.

The biggest one, McGowan said, is state Education Law, which dictates a number of things for the school districts of the state. For instance, each district must teach a certain number of courses, include specific courses in its curriculum, and have students remain in certain classes for a specific number of minutes. McGowan said there are unbelievable amounts of regulations governing those types of decisions, so when it comes to cuts, the administration is quite limited.

In terms of labor, districts are guided by the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, more commonly known as the Taylor Law, a portion of state Civil Service Law. The Taylor Law governs a district’s contracts with its employees and how layoffs need to happen.

“There’s very strict ways and regulations about how that’s supposed to be done,” McGowan said.

He also noted that the state’s fiscal stability has had a big impact. The district’s budget was thrown off when the state started its Gap Elimination Adjustment several years ago and reduced Foundation Aid, the biggest state aid category for Tupper’s schools. He said the district has seen a 10.16 percent decrease in state aid since 2009-10.

If the district was getting the same amount of state aid it got in 2009-10, next year’s tax levy would actually be reduced rather than increased, McGowan said. Because of that, he tried to reframe the district’s money problems as an income problem, not a spending problem as detractors have tried to paint it in recent weeks.

He said spending is increasing for several reasons. A significant increase of about $660,000 in employee benefits is one. Another is that there were some spending items that weren’t under the general fund budget but rather in another spending area, because they were paid for through federal grants or other federal sources. The federal funding for those items is being reduced and the spending now has to be shifted to the general fund budget, McGowan said.

McGowan also addressed the district’s bus proposition, which he said is a bus replacement plan that saves the district money in the long run. He said it’s widely misunderstood.

Hearing comments

Two residents asked questions about the budget during the hearing, while one mother expressed concern about cutting programs at the school.

Patricia St. Onge said she has a child in Tupper Lake’s schools, and she’s worried about the district cutting from clubs and other activities. She said colleges look at extracurricular activities in addition to academics, and not having extracurricular opportunities makes students not as competitive when they apply for college.

“I have a 10-year-old, and I’m very scared about what trail we’re leading on for our kids’ future,” St. Onge said.

McGowan agreed and said that the cuts the district made from clubs attempted to target positions and spending items that might be made up from other funding sources.

David Boyea asked several questions about employee benefits. School board President Dan Mansfield said the district has to negotiate with its employee unions, and some things aren’t even on the table in negotiations, like retirement. He said the district tries to negotiate things like sick time, medical costs and medical leave.

Mansfield said that when he first started on the board a decade ago, teachers weren’t contributing anything to their health insurance costs, but now all employees of the district do.

McGowan said the big problem is the cost of health care increasing, and he said the district is trying to find ways to reduce those costs through a health care consortium the district is part of.

Boyea also asked about the bus proposition, noting that with his own cars, he runs them into the ground to get as much money’s worth out of them. He asked if it was an oversimplification to compare that to the district’s bus replacement plan.

McGowan said it is, because buses are subject to a number of state inspections and become unsafe quicker than smaller vehicles. He said the program the district has now gets rid of buses at the right time, when the district has gotten as much value out of them as possible before they costing too much in maintenance and when their resale value is still relatively high.

Trish Anrig, a former district employee who won a seat on the school board in May and will likely be sworn in in July, asked if this budget still includes the use of the district’s reserve funds. McGowan said it does: $200,000 from the district’s unemployment reserves and $710,000 in general fund balance. Anrig asked what the impact of that would be next year, and McGowan said making the tax levy any smaller than about a 10 percent increase is going to have an impact on next year’s budget, making it harder to balance it.

Second fail?

McGowan said he’s reluctant to address what would happen if the budget fails a second time when it goes to a public vote next week, but he said, “It’s not good.”

The district would have to go back to the current year’s tax levy, $7,312,600, which means administration would have to cut an additional $274,954.

He said that, without question, that would mean additional cuts to the district’s staff.

“This would be a very significant detriment to our school district,” McGowan said.

Mansfield and school board member Jane Whitmore said at the end of the meeting that it’s nice to see a lot of people attend school board meetings, but they’d like to see more taxpayers come out who have questions about the budget. Often, most of the attendees at school board meetings are people who work for the district. Mansfield said he hopes to see many people participating in next week’s vote.

“I really hope the community will come out and support the budget,” Mansfield said.

Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.