BLOOMINGDALE - School Superintendent Gerald Goldman compared the Saranac Lake Central School District's budget situation to the sinking of the Titanic at a school board meeting Wednesday night.
"Every year this gets harder and harder," Goldman told an audience of school board members, parents, teachers and administrators at Bloomingdale Elementary School. "We've been spending the last four years doing things with our school budget, where I likened it to throwing chairs off the deck of the Titanic. Now, the chairs we're throwing off have people in them, our kids in them, or programs in them. Before, the chairs we were throwing off were just empty chairs."
A budget advisory committee that includes board members, administrators, teachers and staff met last week to discuss the budget for the next school year. Goldman said the district is facing the same situation as it was at this time last year.
"The tax cap is 2 percent, state aid is going down, costs are going up at a fairly predictable rate, and once again we're looking at a pretty significant gap between what we can expect to collect from taxpayers and state aid, and the revenue we need to raise in order to maintain the educational programs that we have," Goldman said. "We're once again going to be doing the dance."
In May, school district voters approved a $27 million budget for the 2012-13 school year. The budget came in just under the state's property tax cap and increased the district's tax levy 2.13 percent.
To get there, however, school officials had to close a $1.4 million budget gap. They did so by eliminating roughly 10 teaching positions, mostly through attrition, cutting other staff, reducing the budget for field trips, eliminating indoor track and providing substance abuse prevention in house instead of contracting with North Star Behavioral Health Services, among other measures.
Some of the cuts, specifically the elimination of art and music teaching positions, proved controversial, and parents and students showed up at school board meetings to voice their concerns.
Goldman said today that many people told the board last year they wanted to know earlier in the budget process what positions or programs school officials were thinking about cutting. He said it would be more appropriate, at least at this point, if people come forward to say what positions and programs should be preserved or enhanced.
"What the board is looking for, I think, is input from the public about where the priorities ought to be," Goldman said. "I don't think the board is looking to get into a protracted debate with folks about the merits of these issues until perhaps we get to the decision-making and hearing stage. We're going to try to do a better job of that this year, and we're hoping people will respond in a positive way as we go through this process."
Goldman said the district has faced "hard times" over the last four years. Eventually, like any person trying to maintain a household budget, you reach the point where there's nothing left to cut, he said.
"I don't mean to be doom and gloom about this," Goldman said. "I just think, because it's going to be more difficult, it's more important now that we get a lot of feedback from folks about what they like about what's going on in our schools."