Tupper Lake school budget shaping up

TUPPER LAKE – Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Seth McGowan said next year’s budget is looking better than he expected.

During Monday night’s school board meeting, he attributed the good news to action taken by community members.

“I would like to thank everybody who pushed a button to send something or who sent a letter in,” McGowan said. “That collective voice did have an impact in Albany. I would like to thank anybody who sent anything to those advocates in Albany.”

The district is receiving an additional $274,954 in state aid for its next budget, raising its state aid to almost $7.6 million.

“We saw a $230,757 increase over the governor’s budget from the Legislature,” McGowan said. “Their value add for us was 2.89 percent.”

Another part of the good news, for budget-balancing purposes, is that the proposal on the table would reduce the district’s overall spending by $141,000 from the current school year.

“We’re decreasing the overall budget by .83 percent,” McGowan said. “There’s only one time in recent history that we’ve had a decrease in the budget, and that was something like 2.59 percent.”

The tax cap allows the Tupper Lake district a 1.06 percent tax levy increase for its next budget. McGowan said the proposed budget is at or below that number.

“Even though it’s an increase in the tax levy of 1.06 percent, it’s still a decrease in our spending,” McGowan said.

Things didn’t miraculously fall into place for the school district. McGowan presented a laundry list of how the budget got to the tax cap, and it wasn’t without sacrifice, including a handful of jobs.

If the budget is adopted, the district would go down to one pre-K aide instead of two, meaning a lottery system would be implemented to determine which kids go to morning or afternoon sessions.

The number of art teachers in the district would go from three to two, and the number of librarians would drop from two to one.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the late ’90s we only had two art teachers in the district, and enrollment was higher,” said school board President Jane Whitmore.

McGowan said that was correct. He also called the district’s current art program “stellar.”

“This is not a desirable position to be in, but in considering reductions through attrition and in keeping classroom positions and so forth, this seems to be the least of the worst options at this time.”

An attendance position at the middle/high school would not be replaced when the current employee retires in December. Other office staff members would pick up her duties, McGowan said.

A teaching assistant position would also be turned into a teacher’s aide position when that person retires.

Athletics would also be pared down.

“I met with a majority of the coaches, and we bounced around some ideas that could be potentially cost saving,” district Athletic Director Russ Bartlett said. “We could eliminate non-league games from the schedule and reconvene the Athletic Advisory Committee to take a good, hard look at what sports and at what levels of sports we offer in the district.”

McGowan said the athletics options were not included in the budget, but he said they would allow the district to rebuild its fund balance and improve its financial health.

“We have made some significant cuts, more so than most school districts I know of,” McGowan said. “There is nothing in our school district that has not been touched or affected by budget reductions in the past four years.”

Before the state budget was released, McGowan went on a tour of Tupper Lake, visiting the town and village boards and asking residents and elected officials to put pressure on the governor to reinstate Gap Elimination Adjustment money to school districts statewide.

Things turned out better than he expected, but McGowan said his concerns were warranted.

“I often get asked why everything feels like doom and gloom, and then everything works out in the end,” McGowan said. “At the time we’re assembling the budget in January and February, that’s the current state of affairs. What we said was, if state aid shows no increase after April 1, and in this case it did show an increase, if the tax levy remains under the allowable tax cap, and in this case it does, and if no additional savings can be found, then we’re going to have a significant problem on our hands. That was absolutely true in February.”

The school board will meet again Thursday, April 24 with the intent of adopting the budget. Whitmore urged her fellow board members to get all their questions answered before the meeting.

“When we reconvene as a group on the 24th, it’s our purpose and sole purpose that night to adopt that budget,” Whitmore said. “We as a board need to own that budget. If we’re not comfortable with it, we really need to get a hold of (district Business Manager) Garry (Lanthier) or Seth and ask questions. We need to own this.”