Tupper Lake school budget process begins

TUPPER LAKE – The Tupper Lake Central School District is beginning its budget planing process for the next school year.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Superintendent Seth McGowan outlined a timeline for completing the budget. That plan included an opportunity for the public to weigh in during a budget forum on Feb. 3, a yet-to-be scheduled budget hearing in May and the budget vote on May 20.

McGowan said the main objective for himself and district Budget Officer Garry Lanthier is conservative planning. To do that, they will have to estimate expenses in the upcoming months, including salaries, benefits and the debt service.

McGowan and Lanthier will also have to estimate state aid, building aid, the gap elimination adjustment, appropriated and unappropriated fund balance and the yet-to-be determined tax levy.

Balancing the rising costs of salaries and benefits with the rising expectations of schools imposed by the state’s Common Core standards is of particular concern.

“Right now it’s almost a little absurd to be talking about what the budget next year will look like,” McGowan said. “We know our costs are going to go up, just from health insurance and retirement. Everything’s going up.”

McGowan said employee benefits account for about 30 percent of the operational budget. That includes health insurance and retirement costs of all administrative, educational and support staff.

A large chunk of the school’s fund balance reserve was used to balance this year’s budget, so there will likely be no additions to staffing or programs next school year.

“If there are reductions, I expect they’ll be through attrition, and they’ll be consistent with our school enrollment,” McGowan said.

The district has experienced a decline in total enrollment but a leveling off at the elementary level.

Despite the unknowns, McGowan wants to get moving on the budget.

The board agreed that it could help to form a subcommittee for budgetary affairs, consisting of some board members and representatives of local civic groups. The subcommittee would only be an advisory committee and not a decision-making body.

McGowan said a recent trip to Albany to meet with officials from the state Department of Education left him optimistic about the future of the district.

“The Tupper Lake school district is a topic of discussion in Albany,” McGowan said. “They’re really looking at us as a model for other schools around the state.”

He said the education department praised Tupper Lake for its implementation of the Common Core standards, its strategic planning process and its participation in the School Works video project.

The district is still underfunded, though.

Being underfunded has forced the board to make some tough decisions in recent years, including large reductions in instructional staff.

“Elimination of the GEA (gap elimination adjustment) would put the district’s tax levy below the tax cap and allow it to build back some of its find balance,” McGowan said.

Board member Trish Anrig asked what the chances of the GEA going away are. McGowan said he wasn’t sure.

“I think there’s a big effort on the part of the Rural Schools Association and the State Consortium on School Finance,” McGowan said. “These are very strong organizations, but it’ll be for the Legislature to make that happen.”

McGowan said he is part of a state advocacy committee for school superintendents, and he confirmed that removing the GEA is part of their efforts.

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or skittle@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.