Press-Republican

May 16, 2013

Tupper Central budget exceeds tax cap

By KIM SMITH DEDAM Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — TUPPER LAKE — Despite sports and staffing cuts, Tupper Lake Central School’s proposed 2013-14 budget exceeds the allowed tax cap.

That means the budget needs at least 60 percent public approval in next Tuesday’s vote.

The tax levy of $7,923,391 is up by 8.35 percent, according to School Superintendent Seth McGowan.

“The cap is 4.76 percent,” he said. “This levy is above the cap.”

The proposed total 2013-14 school budget is $17,233,794, up 7.64 percent.

RISING COSTS

Most of the cost increases are connected with federal funding cuts to special education and Title I instruction.

“The instructional costs are up because federal money was cut, placing salaries for teachers who hold those positions next year in the general fund budget. That accounts for about $300,000 in additional cost,” McGowan said.

State Retirement Fund payments went up 16.25 percent, adding about $328,000 in benefit costs.

The district pays into the Retirement System to help fund pensions for teachers, bus drivers, custodians and staff.

“We have no say as to what that (pension increase) number is going to be. It has nothing to do with the number of people retiring,” McGowan said.

Health insurance for the district increased 20 percent, despite Tupper Lake’s shared health-care purchase agreement with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“The cost of all employee benefits — and we’re not alone — makes up 30 percent of our budget,” the superintendent said.

“The total increase in employee benefits is $1 million. That is proportionally the same in every district. The employee benefits are being sucked dry by the health-insurance industry. If this country would tame the cost of health care and health insurance, nobody would be talking about the high cost of education anymore.”

STATE AID DOWN

Increasing costs of benefits are exacerbated by the continued decline in state aid, which, for Tupper Lake Central, removed some $1.2 million in revenue for next year.

To attain this budget, the district applyed $500,000 of fund balance, leaving less than $200,000 in reserve.

“That’s pretty much the end of it. To be clear, we didn’t want to do that,” McGowan said. “But, as Albany seems to be unresponsive each year, giving no guidance to schools as to how to overcome mandated cost anomalies, we are at the end of the line. We’re down to looking for coins in the couch cushions.”

SPORTS, STAFF CUTS

The budget does make several spending cuts, including to junior varsity sports.

“We did eliminate a number of JV teams and went to a grade 7 through 9 modified program in softball, baseball, soccer and volleyball,” McGowan said

A vacated speech-improvement teaching position is not being filled.

“And we had a change in personnel in the director of special programming, leaving one open special-education teaching position not filled,” McGowan said.

“We cut some other items, also. We eliminated a transportation run from the busing program, but it puts the kindergarten kids on the buses with the high-school students, which is something we have tried to avoid in the past.”

There are no teaching retirements at Tupper Lake, but the district shed some 31 jobs three years ago.

“We did consolidate the superintendent and one principal’s position last year and into the first part of this year. For a year, that saved us $100,000,” McGowan said. “But it is not sustainable. We already run very lean in the business office. We get written up every year, in fact, for lack of redundancy in that office.”

SHORT-TERM FIXES

He said cuts are not the solution.

“Our problem here is that this is a one-year push down the road. We haven’t fixed anything. The problem in schools like Tupper Lake is that we can’t cut our way out. Our problem is not expenses; our problem is revenue.”

Tupper Lake’s tax levy is about half that of neighboring districts in the Tri-Lakes, McGowan noted. 

“But their tax base is four to five times larger than ours. The levy at other Tri-Lakes schools is actually twice what Tupper Lake’s is, but the rate per $1,000 is lower because the tax base is so large.”

The school tax rate is estimated to come in next year at $13.20 per $1,000 of property value, a $1.02 increase.

“That tax rate is still lower than it was four years ago. And we are $5 or $6 per $1,000 below state average,” McGowan said.

“The district is already sharing services where it can. We have an agreement with Long Lake for bus repairs. We buy a shared service through BOCES for school computer technicians.

“We’ve been as creative as possible. We’ve been very thorough, looking at every possible option.”

‘EDUCATIONAL INSOLVENCY’

If the budget is not approved on Tuesday, McGowan said, additional cuts will be required.

“We’re really teetering on the edge of educational insolvency. That means, if we have many more cuts, we’re not going to be able to satisfy requirements of State Education Department for graduation. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a few more cuts resulting in the loss of courses we offer.

“At the elementary school, there are all sorts of new requirements for assessments. Cuts there would threaten our students’ ability to be successful in that process.”

BUS PURCHASE

The vote includes a proposition to purchase two school buses at a cost not to exceed $230,500. But it is not in addition to the tax levy or to the budget, McGowan said. 

“We are in a bus-recycling program, and already included in the budget is the interest we would pay for those buses. Our credit rating is good, and we borrow at a 1 percent or 2 percent interest rate.”

The budget and School Board vote is noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Tupper Lake High School.

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com