Saranac Lake schools face $1M shortfall

SARANAC LAKE – The Saranac Lake School Board met Wednesday for the second installment of budget talks as they plan to deal with an upcoming $1 million shortfall.

Assistant Superintendent Dan Bower gave a speech and took questions the preliminary budget forecast. He began by explaining what the revenue was for the current school year.

“Our tax levy is $19.3 million,” Bower said. “We can raise an additional $378,000 under the tax cap as it presently exists.”

That breaks down to a 1.95 percent increase in the tax levy, but like any school budget it would need at least 50 percent voter approval to pass. If the levy increase exceeds the tax tap, the budget would need 60 percent voter approval. Bower said the total estimated revenue the district would bring in for the year would be $28 million, including state aid and other small sources.

Expenditures are estimated to cost the school $29.1 million. Bower said employee benefits for health and dental insurance makes up 20 percent of the total budget.

He noted that if the school board did not make some tough decisions in the recent past, including closing two schools and laying off employees, the shortfall would be much greater.

“That $1 million would be much worse if we did not take proactive action,” Bower said.

A potential solution Bower suggested was to attempt to get more state aid through the Gap Elimination Adjustment.

The state comptroller told the school district it is not on the list of stressed districts on Dec. 13. Saranac Lake had a stress score of 21.7 percent, 3.3 percent off the distressed list. Bower said the district could be two to three years away from being in significant stress.

“It’s a good thing we are not on the list, but we are dangerously close,” Bower said. “Like so many districts, we are not far away if we don’t take action.

“That’s why we are doing the things we are doing so we don’t get there.”

Survey results

Superintendent Diane Fox combined the results of two surveys and showed the results at the meeting. The survey was used to get a picture of what the community members, staff, parents and students think of the school’s top priorities.

The top answers for the greatest challenges and issues Saranac Lake Central School will face were maintaining extracurricular activities and maintaining a standard of excellence.

The top answers for long-term financial priorities were maintaining instructions in the arts and keeping clean, well-repaired, energy-efficient buildings.

The top answers for non-essential school programs were maintaining the present number of sports teams and elementary extracurricular activities.

In total, 523 people voted in the survey, Fox said. The board noted the surveys were not scientific and that if someone was determined, they could figure out a way to vote multiple times.

“Do I have everybody in the community? No.” Fox said. “But from our small sampling, look at how aligned our four groups are. They all share the same basic values in our school district.”

Veterans exemptions

The topic changed later in the meeting to a new law that allows school districts to provide exemptions from tax assessments for veterans, shifting the tax burden to non-veterans.

“It’s a challenge trying to do it now,” Bower said. “It’s a tight time for it.”

Board member Terry Tubridy said the school board should not avoid the discussion.

“I don’t want to sit back,” he said. “I’m a veteran, and this needs to be addressed. Failure to address this will create animosity.”

Board member Katie Fischer said the school board needs more information before it moves forward.

“I don’t want to jump into something without all the information in front of me,” she said. “Get all the information, and then do it.”

The school board decided to hold off on the veteran exemptions discussion until a later meeting. A separate public meeting must be held if the school board moves to pass the exemptions.