TUPPER LAKE - The second version of the Tupper Lake Central School District's 2013-14 budget passed Tuesday, but the district's second try at a proposition to buy new buses failed again.
Voters approved the budget 561 to 488 with what was still a larger turnout than normal, though it was fewer than the nearly 1,200 people who came out to vote in May.
The first budget would have needed a 60 percent supermajority of the vote to pass since it would have exceeded the state-imposed tax cap, increasing the tax levy by 8.35 percent over the current school year's.
Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Seth McGowan tallies the vote totals in the referendum on the district’s revised 2013-14 budget Tuesday night at the middle/high school.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
After taxpayers voted that version down 685 to 512, the district's administration took another hack at the budget. They cut spending by getting rid of seven instructional positions, including two layoffs, and making cuts to things like extracurricular activities and all junior varsity sports.
The version of the budget that went to voters Tuesday was a full percentage point below the tax cap, increasing the tax levy by $274,954, or 3.76 percent, to about $7.6 million.
Voters turned down for the second time a proposition to buy two new buses, part of a bus recycling program that administrators tried to convince voters saves the district money in the long run. Residents of the school district voted the proposition down 561 to 475.
District Superintendent Seth McGowan said the numbers for the second budget vote ended up right where he expected them to.
"We did what the taxpayers asked; we brought it down below the tax cap," McGowan said. "I think people recognized that we're doing as much as we possibly could within the restraints of the school district."
Still, McGowan said he wasn't surprised that the budget vote was so close.
"I think people are still burned about the firehouse vote," McGowan said. "I think people are upset about the economy in general, so the fact that it's a large turnout is symbolic of the times we live in."
He said that any time in the past when more than 1,000 voters have turned out, the district runs the risk of the budget failing.
He said he didn't understand voters turning down the bus proposition. He said the district will have to keep the same number of buses, but they will likely cost taxpayers more money in the long run.
"That I don't understand," McGowan said.
The scene as school district residents hit the ballot box Tuesday was drastically different from when they first voted on May 21. In May, the school year was at its apex; the halls buzzed with students who exhibited their art, cooking and other educational pursuits in the annual student Expo. Student art seemed to cover every surface in every hallway and glittery, colorful signs directed people to the voting booths. Posters explaining the first version of the budget lined the path into the eighth-grade science classroom where the vote happens each year.
Tuesday, the walls were bare except for signs directing students to testing rooms. The word "vote" was scribbled in black marker on plain, white sheets of paper with arrows pointing the way. And the science room seemed large and empty without any budget explainers to be found.
Poll workers said it wasn't as steady as in May, but a stream of people still flowed in during the dinner hour despite it being one of the few sunny, clear evenings in a few weeks.
Shelly Gagnon said she and her husband voted yes to both the budget and the bus proposition.
"Because we don't need any more cuts in programs," Gagnon told the Enterprise as she left the building with her husband and two kids after voting.
With two children in the school system, she said she was concerned about their education if class sizes increase and sports, music and other arts programs are cut.
Pierson St. Pierre also voted yes.
"I believe the kids should have the same opportunities I had in high school," St. Pierre said. "I just don't want to take away from the kids."
Fred LaMere, a former school board member who ran another, unsuccessful bid for the board last year, said he voted against the budget despite changes to it.
He said he disagrees with the level of pay raises the district's administrators have been given in recent years, citing McGowan's 17 percent raise and former Director of Special Programs Kelly Wight's 14 percent raise in 2011. Wight has since resigned to take a job with BOCES.
McGowan agreed to a pay freeze in the 2013-14 budget after the first verion was turned down, and he will make $130,732 in salary and $35,774 in benefits for the second year in a row. He was slated to make $133,347 in salary and $41,327 in benefits in 2013-14, and he is set to go back to the previous raise schedule after next school year.
LaMere said Tupper Lake doesn't have a big enough tax base to support $130,000 for its superintendent pay.
"You just can't be giving that kind of money away," LaMere said. "I'm sorry."
He also said there are things in the district's teachers' contract that he disagrees with, like a stipulation that gives them a salary boost for having a master's degree even though teachers are required to have such a degree. He noted that payments like that compound each year to give teachers a big boost. He also said he wants to see teachers contribute more to their health insurance.
"To me, it's just crazy," LaMere said. "I mean, it's got to slow down somewhere."
LaMere said that even though his daughter is a teacher, he can't support putting more of a burden on taxpayers.
Three school board members gathered for the count at the end of the night and were pleased with the results of the budget vote.
School board member Jane Whitmore said the changes made to the budget made all the difference.
"It was a long, hard road," Whitmore said. "I'm thankful that the vote passed, and that we've just got to get to work now."
She said it's unfortunate some sports and extracurricular activity cuts will hurt some students, "but I think with the caring and compassion of the educators, teachers, support staff, our kids are going to be OK."
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 26 or firstname.lastname@example.org.