Tupper town board votes against school Gap Elimination Adjustment

TUPPER LAKE – The Tupper Lake town board is the latest group of elected officials to pass a resolution demanding an end to the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Seth McGowan approached the board during its Thursday night meeting and presented a draft of a letter written by the Tupper Lake school board to state legislators.

Several local governments have already sent copies of that letter, or ones similar to it, to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Sen. Betty Little and Assembly members Janet Duprey and Dan Stec. They include the Tupper Lake, Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school boards, as well as the Tupper Lake village board and the Franklin County Board of Legislators.

McGowan said individuals have also been sending similar letters. He said people can find information on how to get involved on his district’s website.

McGowan explained that the GEA has put school districts across the state in the precarious position of struggling to balance rising costs with reduced state aid.

The GEA was enacted in 2010 by Gov. David Paterson’s administration to close the gap between the state’s anticipated revenue and its expenses by reducing aid to school districts statewide.

Before the GEA was enacted, McGowan said, more than half of the Tupper Lake district’s $17 million operating budget came from the state, and the rest came from local property taxes.

“What the gap elimination really did was create a gap for us,” McGowan said. “That reduction from the state resulted in an increase in need from the local tax base. We went from about 52 percent state funding to about 46 percent in state funding. That’s resulted in about $6 million for the school district.”

The GEA doesn’t represent the only hardship faced by school districts.

“Two years ago, they instituted the tax cap,” McGowan said. “That created a vacuum, where the funding went down. The tax cap kept us from being able to make up the funding we lost through the gap elimination.”

To balance the budget and stay below the tax cap, the school district in recent years has spent most of its fund balance, cut programs, cut about 25 percent of its instructional staff in a single year (although it later replaced some of those) and other years reduced staff size as people retired.

McGowan said the school district is looking at a 1 percent tax increase, or $80,000, for next year’s budget. Even with that slight increase, the school will need to fill a gap of $969,000 to balance its budget. McGowan said that amount is almost the same as the district’s GEA amount this year.

McGowan said if the GEA remains in effect next year, the district would need to impose a 13-and-a-half-percent tax levy increase to balance its budget.

The exorbitant cost of heating faced by many residents throughout the region has also affected the school district. McGowan said last month’s electricity bill to heat the high school was $27,000.

McGowan also reminded the board that a recent state comptroller’s report listed Tupper Lake as the 12th most fiscally stressed school district in the state.

“The irony of all of this is we have auditors coming through our doors constantly as a result of improprieties in other school districts,” McGowan said. “Every time they come in, I ask if there’s something we should be doing differently or if there’s something we should have done differently. Every time they say no, and we’re very proud of that, but now we’re really in a problem.”

After McGowan spoke, members of the town board vocalized their disdain for the GEA.

“This whole gap elimination thing sounds like a way for the state of New York to balance its budget on the backs of the schools,” Councilman John Quinn said.

Councilwoman Kathy Lefebvre agreed.

“Didn’t I just see an advertisement on television with Cuomo saying education is so important?” Lefebvre said. “They just take for granted that what works in Albany doesn’t necessarily work here. It seems like the whole state has been painted with one brush.”

Moving forward, McGowan said he’d like to meet with the town and village boards in the near future to discuss ways those entities can share resources.

For more information on the Tupper Lake Central School District’s budget, visit www.tupperlakecsd.net.