Saranac Lake school board sends budget to the voters

SARANAC LAKE – The Saranac Lake Central School District board passed a $28.2 million budget Wednesday night, sending it to a public vote on May 20.

The board met in the high school auditorium and approved Superintendent Diane Fox’s recommended budget, which contains a 1.8 percent tax levy increase, within the tax cap, and would eliminate several full-time teachers and teaching assistant positions.

Dan Bower, the assistant superintendent, explained to the board he had freed up about $109,000, based on their recommendations from the last meeting. The money came from unemployment insurance, field trips, retirement incentives and other areas.

This allowed the board to reconsider their options and ultimately save three teaching positions. A few board members explained they had subjects they preferred, but it was quickly decided an extra elementary school teacher is the top priority for the whole district.

“I recommend we bring back another elementary school teacher,” board member Shir Filler said.

“That’s step one,” board member Clyde Baker said.

Debra Lennon, president of the school board, brought up keeping elective positions with the remainder of the funding. The board members discussed saving technology and wellness positions at the high school.

Fox believed bringing back a part-time technology teacher would be a mistake unless the position could be shared half of the time with the neighboring Lake Placid Central School District.

Priority shift

Fox briefly reiterated to the board that her budget is sound. She also said the student population is changing and that the school district has to become “more adaptable” because economically disadvantaged students are not doing as well as they should.

“Spending our resources on some of these positions is not in the best interest of our students,” Fox said. “This is not about placing one group over another.”

Fox said historically the school district is full of “fiefdoms,” with competing departments acting in their own interests with “little regard” for the district as a whole.

“This budget levels the playing field,” Fox said. “I would cut these positions even if we did not have the current budget (situation).”

Fox then listed priorities she would develop if the situation were different, including a career and college counselor at the high school and home and career courses at the middle school.

Teacher negotiations

School board member Katie Fischer brought up the costs of teacher health benefits and said about $200,000 could be saved if the teachers would switch to another plan.

Baker repeated that such a decision could not be made yet because teacher contracts will be negotiated next year.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate for our budget tonight,” Baker said. “Nobody can make that decision tonight.”

“People need to know where their money’s going,” Filler said.

Lennon agreed.

“It’s important to let the taxpayers understand,” Lennon said.

Co-president of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association Don Carlisto spoke later at the public hearing.

“I’m aware this has been an extremely painful budget for everyone,” Carlisto said. “The sentiment and tone that has arisen here tonight is not a result of teachers advocating for their programs.

“Teachers are taxpayers,” Carlisto added. “Health insurance is earned by highly skilled professionals. It’s not a gift.”

Public hearing

At the public hearing three people spoke against exceeding the tax cap, one spoke in favor of exceeding the cap, two spoke for adding an elementary teaching position, and two people discussed the pros and cons of sports programs.

Laura-Jean Swanson of Saranac Lake, a teacher at SUNY Plattsburgh, called on teachers to reduce their sick days.

“Twenty days could be trimmed to 10,” she said.

She estimated that would save $150,000.

Robert Laba of the Petrova Parents Club said something should be done about classroom size.

“The parents at Petrova (Elementary School) are extremely concerned about classroom size,” Laba said.

Debbie Kanze, a parent of two Bloomingdale Elementary School students, presented the board with a check for an unspecified amount. She said the total was 10 times her property tax rebate.

“I really applaud you for adding back in some positions that have been cut,” Kanze said. “I would advise adding in another one (an elementary teacher).”

Board’s decision

Baker made a motion that the budget should include one full-time elementary teacher, a half-time technology teacher (potentially shared with Lake Placid) and a 0.4-full-time-equivalent wellness teacher. The school board voted unanimously for Baker’s motion after comments from the public were heard. No members were absent.

“This (decision) comes from real hard work,” Lennon said. “It’s the best we can do.”