SARANAC LAKE - Supporters of the Saranac Lake Central School District's art and music programs turned out in force Tuesday during the final stop on the district's budget "listening tour."
Current and former students, parents, teachers, artists and other district residents spoke passionately about the importance of arts in education, and urged school officials not to cut art and music programs in the 2013-14 budget. Some said the district should exceed the state's property tax cap to keep the programs intact.
Other speakers called on school officials to develop a more long-range financial plan and push harder for consolidation with other districts.
Mary Kay Benham, a teacher’s aide who works in the Saranac Lake High School library, speaks in support of the school district’s arts and music programs during the final stop on the district’s budget “listening tour” Tuesday night in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
The meeting was hosted by the district's Budget Advisory Committee, which includes school officials and representatives of the district's employee unions. Over the last three weeks it held "listening tour" sessions at the Saranac Lake Adult Center, Saranac Village at Will Rogers and Bloomingdale Elementary School, but each one only drew a handful of people. Nearly 100 people showed up Tuesday night's meeting in the Harrietstown Town Hall auditorium.
Supporting the arts
Many parents spoke about how the district's music and art programs made a big difference in their kids' careers in school and after they graduated.
"If it weren't for the music department - and specifically Mr. (Keith) Kogut, Mr. (Drew) Benware and Mrs. (Helen) Demong - I doubt either one of my boys would be able to successfully apply to college, never mind be on the dean's list or be an Eagle Scout," said Susan Olsen. "The confidence they learned in their own abilities in those classes was so powerful, given that they struggled so much in their academic classes. I don't see the arts as extraneous at all. I think they're central and critical."
Local photographer Mark Kurtz read from a letter composed by members of Saranac Lake ArtWorks, which represents artists, studios and galleries in the area.
"Through experiences in the arts, students learn to think outside the box, to seek alternative approaches when working in science, looking back at history and to the challenges that society faces," he said. "Please do not cut the arts and music program any more."
Numerous current and former Saranac Lake school students also spoke.
Saranac Lake High School senior Michael Burpoe said the district's art and music programs help to break down stereotypes and social barriers in the school district. He said most people considered him "a jock" until he decided to join the musical cast and the chorus this year, which he said has helped make him a more well-rounded student.
Alta Wamsganz brought many people to tears when she described how she was diagnosed with chronic depression, started to self-harm and stopped talking to people.
"Then teachers reached out to me, and they brought me into the art program, and the band wing, and they showed me the drama class," she said. "Without that, I wouldn't have had friends. I wouldn't have gotten out of the situation I was in. I may not have even been here today."
Others spoke to the bigger issue the district is facing: perennially declining state aid and rising costs. Brian Mann, a local parent and North Country Public Radio's Adirondack Bureau chief, said this budget crisis is a permanent state.
"There needs to begin a longer-term planning process," he said. "The truth is unless we start thinking about creative ways to make programs like this sustainable, we won't have a choice."
Mann also said that if the school system is cut to the bone and is no longer vibrant, young families won't move here, which could create "a down spiral that, I think, we just don't want to go there."
Vermontville parent and North Country Community College English professor Shir Filler proposed the district override the tax cap this year to prevent cuts to the district's programs, something she believed many people in the community will support.
"In addition, we do something proactive," she said. "We need to get a group together, so we're not sitting here in the exact same position next year, and say 'How do we reimagine education?' This old model is not going to work."
Jon Vinograd said the district needs to consolidate with other districts in the area, given declining student enrollment.
"If we want to sustain what we have now, we have to think in that direction," he said. "Otherwise we'll be piercing the cap forever because we continue to lose students. It's a no-win situation."
Exceeding the cap
Superintendent Gerald Goldman said at the school board's Feb. 6 meeting that exceeding the cap may be necessary.
"I really believe we ought to," he repeated Tuesday night. "After what I listened to tonight, come on. Our school system is really good, but to keep it that way, we're going to have to figure out a way to deliver education in this district different than we do right now."
However, going over the cap, which requires the budget to be approved by a 60 percent supermajority of their voters, can be risky, Goldman said. Although it's generally referred to as a 2-percent cap, he explained to the audience that it's an actually a tax levy limit that varies from district to district. The limit for Saranac Lake schools for the 2013-14 budget is expected to be somewhere above 3 percent, Goldman said.
Last year, 48 of the state's 675 public school districts proposed budgets that exceeded their tax caps; 29 of them were approved. Goldman said districts that tried to exceed their cap and had a tax levy limit of 2 percent or less had much greater success. Districts that had limits of 3, 4 or 5 percent and tried to exceed their cap had much less success in getting the voters to go along with them.
"The more you go above the cap, the greater your chances of failing," Goldman said. Should the district propose to exceed the cap, it will need to "motivate and turn out voters who will vote yes," the superintendent added.
Goldman said he agreed that going over the cap is not a long-term solution to the problems of declining state aid and rising costs, and that longer-term planning is needed.
"We're not going to think our way out of this this year," he said. "We may in five years, but not in the next six months. We're at a point now where all those gimmicks, gadgets and tricks have been largely exhausted."
In addition to asking people to identify their priorities, school officials went into the listening tour looking for people's suggestions on ways to generate new revenue or areas to cut expenses, but they didn't get much of that Tuesday night.
"I kind of expected that," school board member Clyde Baker said. "I expected this whole thing of everyone telling us what they like and, 'Save my program.' I was hoping to hear a little bit more of 'Save my program, but maybe think about this.' Not to throw somebody else's program under the bus, but alternative ways of how to think about things. That's what I was hoping to get out of all this."
Asked about consolidation, Baker said Saranac Lake and Lake Placid school officials have been meeting since the fall to identify areas where they could share services or staff. He said that's something both boards will continue doing, but he admitted the effort likely won't yield much savings for either district in their 2013-14 budgets.
Baker also said long-term planning is a priority for the board and is something that's being asked of candidates seeking to replace Goldman, who will retire at the end of the school year.
The district is also taking input on next year's budget via a confidential survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/DP8BV2T.
(Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the limit for Saranac Lake schools for the 2013-14 - not 2012-13 - budget is expected to be somewhere above 3 percent, Goldman said.)