School district braces for another lean budget

SARANAC LAKE – Saranac Lake Central School District officials face another year of tough choices as they prepare the district’s 2014-15 budget.

While it’s still months before the voters will be asked to approve the budget at the polls, school administrators gave an overview of where they’ve been and where they’re going at a recent district Board of Education meeting.

“Around budget season, you often hear the phrase, ‘A school budget is a reflection of community’s priorities,'” Superintendent Diane Fox told the board. “This may have been true in the past, but in these economic times, there are few communities left that can fully financially support every priority. We’re all making choices.”

Fox said decisions made during this year’s budget process will be based on data. Any program changes will be driven by enrollment or the required number of sections, she explained.

“We’ll consider the impact of changes on students first,” Fox said. “We’ll direct our resources to our most significant student needs, and we’ll preserve educational opportunities wherever possible based on three things, in order: cost effectiveness, addressing program needs and tax sensitivity for our taxpayers.”

Dan Bower, the district’s assistant superintendent for business, said the budget will be shaped around several key parameters, including the state’s property tax cap, state budget issues, continually rising expenses, fund balance management and community expectations.

Bower said the district’s annual tax levy increase since the 2008-09 school year has been 2.2 percent. He noted that number is roughly what the state’s tax cap has been since it was implemented in 2012. This year, the cap for municipalities has been set at 1.6 percent. It will be set for school districts later this month.

Since the state’s introduction of the Gap Elimination Adjustment in 2010, school districts have seen a reduction in school aid. Saranac Lake is currently getting about $1 million less in aid than it did in 2009-10, Bower said. Cumulatively, the district has lost about $4 million in aid since the adjustment took effect, he said.

“That’s a pretty good chunk of money,” he said.

While state aid has decreased, the cost of employee benefits has grown from $6.5 million in 2009-10 to $9 million this year, or roughly $1.5 million more than the district gets in aid, Bower noted.

“What that really says is our entire programming in this district is supported by our community,” Fox said. “State aid does not even cover just the benefit portion of what we pay out.”

School officials have worked to increase employee contributions toward their health-care coverage during union negotiations. However, the Affordable Care Act added $1 million in new taxes and fees to the health-care plan the district gets through a consortium of school districts in the region, Bower said.

The average annual increase in spending over the last five years has been 1 percent, Bower said. School officials have cut $1.1 million from the budget over the last four years.

In total, 30 instructional positions have been eliminated, including teachers, teacher assistants and aides, along with other positions, over the last four years. The district has also eliminated summer school, outsourced its universal pre-kindergarten program, postponed capital projects, curbed purchasing and cut the budgets for field trips and extracurricular activities.

What has been preserved? Despite all the cuts, Bower noted that program-related costs this year are about 75 percent of the annual budget. That’s slightly more than it was in the 2009-10 budget.

“The percentage we’re spending on programs is actually higher,” he said. “I thought that was good news.”

Moving forward, Fox said the district needs to work collaboratively with the community. Last month, school leaders launched the first in a series of online budget surveys geared toward helping the district identify its priorities in this year’s budget process. Another is planned this month. A budget “listening tour” is also planned this year, Fox said. Budget workshops, each one on a different topic, will begin in February.

“Information needs to flow in both directions,” Fox said. “Community members need to be fully informed throughout the budget process, and the district needs to be informed, through multiple opportunities, of the community’s top priorities for its school.”

The next Board of Education meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Petrova School library.