Standing room only at Saranac Lake school board

SARANAC LAKE – It was standing room only at the Saranac Lake Central School District school board meeting Wednesday night.

Dozens of teachers, parents and community members filled the Petrova library and told school board members their opinions on the budget for the 2014-15 school year. The district will likely make up for $1 million budget shortfall through layoffs.

It was the first of two meetings on the budget. The next is on Wednesday, April 9, when school board members are expected to finalize the spending plan to send to voters May 20. The board currently has two important decisions: whether or not to stay below the state property tax cap, and whether to change proposed line item expenses, including teacher’s jobs. Neither of those decisions was made Wednesday.

Last week, district Superintendent Diane Fox laid out her advisory budget to the board, which would raise the tax levy by 1.8 percent, within the tax cap, and eliminate 25 teaching positions: eight full-time teachers and 17 teaching assistants. The district currently has 42 teaching assistants.

The state budget deal on Tuesday changed things, Fox said. There is now an additional $150,000 available to the school district from Gap Elimination Adjustment restorations – not nearly as much state aid as Fox and Assistant Superintendent Bower had hoped for, but enough to save a few jobs. This allowed Fox to alter her recommendations. Instead of 17 teaching assistants being cut, the amount should be reduced to 10, she told the board.

Tax cap

Fox said to the school board and community that she had lived through failing to go above the tax cap before and advised against trying it. She said if this were to occur, there would still be tough decisions to make next year.

Bower explained Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tax freeze rebate check as “taking money from left pocket and putting it in the right.” The rebate checks are technical and can vary depending on a number of factors, Bower said.

School board

The board discussed a number of small items at the meeting. Member Clyde Baker asked most of the questions, saying he had a list of some 28 questions.

One discussion that was brought up by another school board member was whether or not to renegotiate teachers’ health insurance plans.

Don Carlisto, co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association, said after the meeting that Saranac Lake teachers in the school district pay more for their health insurance than others regionally. He said the contract is scheduled to be negotiated next year and that the association always keeps financial conditions in mind when they negotiate.

“We’ll negotiate (then),” he said. “We’ll recalibrate benefits at the negotiating table.”

Public comments

At the meeting’s public comment session, most people who spoke urged the board not to cut a teacher or class.

Corinne Palmeri, a fifth-grade teacher at Bloomingdale Elementary School, spoke first about teachers’ aides being needed. She read a list of all the activities they do to help students, teachers and the school.

“Academic support, technology supervision, testing accommodations, a.m. busy duty, cafeteria duty,” Palmeri said, “I’d like to encourage you to study the list.”

Laura Sheft, a middle school health teacher for some 25 years, spoke about the wellness program, a course Fox has said at the last meeting she cannot promise will remain at the school.

“We feel the wellness elective is very important for our high school seniors,” Sheft said. “It’s a course that could prepare them for the health field. We feel the wellness elective is a top priority.”

Foreign language was discussed by two of the public speakers at the meeting. Trisha Wickwire, a Spanish teacher at the high school, said cutting a Spanish teacher would result in another teacher picking up too much work.

“If we cut a high school Spanish teacher, that’s four class periods,” Wickwire said. “A single high school Spanish teacher cannot teach seven classes through the day.”

Joshua F. Marlow, a high school technology teacher for grades 9 through 12, spoke up for his program and asked the school board to exceed the tax cap.

“I can’t speak for other classes, but I won’t be able to absorb the course load,” Marlow said. “I ask this of our board of education to put students first.”

David Hamilton, a high school senior who enjoys technology classes, also spoke up for them.

Aurora White, a parent of two students in the district, asked the board to seriously consider going over the tax cap.

“If we keep the status quo, we are crippling our children’s future,” White said. “Tonight and the previous night, I’ve heard words of failure.”