TUPPER LAKE - Only one member of the public spoke at a school board hearing Monday night, and it was a comment in support of the district's budget.
Local businessman Mark Moeller said he doesn't like what he's been reading in the local press, especially accusations of mismanagement at the schools.
He said he's heard a number of budget briefings over the years at Rotary Club meetings, and he's not sure he could find anyone who understands the budget process better than district Superintendent Seth McGowan.
About a dozen people showed up to the Tupper Lake Central School District budget hearing Monday night, but local businessman Mark Moeller was the only member of the public to comment on the budget.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
"I think the reason why it's complicated is the same reason why it's hard to do business locally, and that's the state of New York," Moeller said.
The increase in state mandates, the cost of employee benefits and the decrease in state aid are creating a perfect storm for the district's financing, Moeller said.
"To lay that blame on the administration or the board I thought was a false accusation, and I just wanted to lend my support and thank Seth and the board," Moeller said.
About a dozen members of the public showed up to the hearing, including several teachers and district staff members, but Moeller was the only one to speak.
There have been several criticisms of the district and its budget in guest commentaries and letters to the editor in the Enterprise and Tupper Lake Free Press, and the Free Press ran an editorial last week advocating for district residents to vote against the budget, which would exceed the state's tax cap with a tax levy increase of 8.35 percent.
McGowan referenced those when he used most of his budget presentation to debunk what he called myths about the district's finances. He said he's heard or read a number of things that are "damaging to the reality of the situation."
The first "myth" McGowan addressed is that the district keeps increasing spending. He noted that between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, it dropped, and while it increased in the current year, it still remained lower than 2010-11.
The second "myth" is that staffing in the district has increased while enrollment has decreased. In the last six years, the number of students in the district has fallen from 984 to 814. The number of district employees dropped overall during that time by 14, from 117 to 103, according to a graph McGowan showed. The number of instructional positions dropped to 90 in 2010-11, when the district laid off about a quarter of its instructional staff. It has rebuilt some since then, but would decrease by three in the coming year.
"Myth" number three is that Tupper Lake pays more per pupil than other districts in the area. McGowan said that's not true, showing a graph comparing the numbers with the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school districts.
His fourth "myth" is that the tax rate in Tupper Lake's school district is unusually high compared to area districts. He said that it is higher than Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, but he noted that those districts have a much larger tax base with more assessed property value in the district, so the rates residents pay are lower. Besides those two districts, he said Tupper Lake has the lowest rate in the Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES district.
McGowan's fifth and sixth "myths" were that school consolidation and shared services are easy and could save money. He said the Tupper Lake Central School district is larger in size than, for example, two districts in the Albany area. He said it would make more sense for districts smaller in area to consolidate, but it doesn't necessarily make sense in a rural area. He also argued that using BOCES for things like business office functions often comes out to be more expensive than paying someone to do them in-house.
Board President Dan Mansfield asked the community to support the budget, thanking voters for doing so in the past.
"I know this is a tough one," Mansfield said.
He said there are a number of problems in Tupper Lake, and everyone is worried about what will happen with the local state jobs. But he said he feels that the school needs to stay strong.
"A good school is a good thing for our property values," Mansfield said.
He said people often look at the school district when deciding whether to move to or invest in an area, so it's important to invest in the district.
If it fails
Board member Dawn Hughes asked McGowan what happens if the budget fails. Since it would exceed the tax cap, it would need a supermajority of voters, or 60 percent, to approve it.
McGowan said he would recommend offering up another budget for a second vote that would meet the tax cap. That would mean cutting another $262,000 from spending. He said that would almost definitely mean reducing staff, which would mean reducing programming for students.
That would drop the tax rate by about 20 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, which McGowan said wouldn't be a significant change while it would be devastating to the school.
If that version of the budget didn't pass, McGowan said the district would need to go to a budget with the same tax levy as the current year's budget. That would mean finding $610,000 in cuts.
"I don't see how we would be able to operate," McGowan said. "That would be a very bad scenario."
The budget goes to the public for a vote from noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 21.
Also on the ballot, two school board seats are up for grabs. Mansfield and Hughes are running for re-election, and Trish Anrig will challenge them for one of the seats.
Voting will be held at the middle/high school on Chaney Avenue. Also during that time, the district will be holding a student expo, exhibiting the various talents of its student body.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.