Saranac Lake has Stormiest school budget

SARANAC LAKE – On Tuesday, New Yorkers head to the polls to vote in school elections. In the Tri-Lakes area, the one that’s drawn the most controversy is here in the home of the Red Storm.

The Saranac Lake Central School District was faced with a $1 million shortfall in its 2014-15 budget, and it’s proposing to make that up, and stay within the state tax cap, by eliminating five full-time teachers and seven teaching assistants.

It’s far from the first time this district’s board members and administrators have had to make tough decisions.

In the last five years, the district shut down two of its five schools and eliminated 40 full-time-equivalent positions. The building closures save $750,000 a year, officials say, and leasing them brings in $450,000.

But that hasn’t been enough to get it out of this fiscal hole. Every year the state cuts its aid via the Gap Elimination Adjustment – $5.8 million over the last five years, plus $830,000 next year, according to Assistant Superintendent Dan Bower. Also, the cost of things like staff pensions and health insurance goes up each year. Bower said the recent state tax cap is also a factor, since it pressures the district not to ask its taxpayers for much more money each year.

Diane Fox started as superintendent last summer, and this is her first budget vote.

“These are substantial cuts this year, but they certainly weren’t the first steps we’ve taken to balance out what we’ve done financially,” Fox said.

Did the school district cut enough last year? Fox said it’s hard to predict the politics of state aid each year and the amount a school district will get.

“I think they did a good job with what they knew,” she said.

The Gap Elimination Adjustment, meanwhile, “just continues to haunt our budget,” Fox said.

The budget

The budget is broken down into three categories: administrative, capital and programming. None would change much.

The administrative portion, $3,038,155, would decrease by 0.05 percent from last year. A retirement in the administrative office contributed to the decrease.

The capital portion of the budget, $3,841,498, would increase by 0.04 percent from last year. Bower said $96,000 for track resurfacing was part of the reason. If the budget passes, the track would likely be repaired this summer.

The programing section, $21,395,028, would increase by 0.02 percent. The largest decrease there is $833,324 in the “Teaching-Regular School” category, and the largest increase, $897,421, is for employee benefits.

Fox said the percentage changes in the three sections of the budget can get overlooked.

“With the reductions we have had in place this year, our percentages have stayed almost equal,” Fox said “We had similar changes in our capital and administrative percentages, and I think that gets lost sometimes when we are so busy talking about reductions and people.”

The district Board of Education approved Fox’s budget on April 9.

Teaching cuts

Fox originally proposed to cut eight full-time teaching positions and 17 teaching assistants, but after the state budget was passed April 1, there was an increase in state aid and an additional $150,000 available from Gap Elimination Adjustment restorations – plus, Bower freed up $109,000 in other savings. Fox added 10 teaching assistants back into her budget, and the school board later decided to add an elementary teacher, a wellness teacher and a half-time technology teacher who is proposed to be shared with the Lake Central Placid School District.

Fox said she still did not have any updates on sharing the position with Lake Placid. It would likely be discussed over the summer break.

The district currently has 42 teaching assistants and an estimated 135 teachers.

Propositions

In addition to a yes-no vote on the budget, there are two propositions on the May 20 ballot, both annual occurrences. The first asks for $148,464 in funding for the Saranac Lake Free Library, and the second asks for up to $336,000 to buy school buses. The district tries to buy school buses at a steady pace and sell older ones before they start to accrue heavy maintenance costs.

Exit poll

An exit poll will be taken on whether voters support giving veterans in the district a partial property tax exemption. The exemption would shift the tax burden from veterans to non-veterans by 60 cents per $1,000 assessed property value.

“We encourage people who vote to take the extra minute,” Fox said.