TLCSD union: Cuts ‘upsetting,’ but unavoidable

TUPPER LAKE — The co-presidents of the Tupper Lake United Teachers union say the layoffs and position eliminations coming this year are “upsetting” and concerning, but that they don’t see how the cuts could have been avoided — at least, not with the way the state currently funds schools like theirs.

A large portion of the 17 to 20 job cuts expected in the next school year come as the last of the coronavirus pandemic-era aid from the state and federal governments runs out, as labor and healthcare costs rise and the district’s fund balance dwindles.

As district officials have put together their budget, they discovered that the district would need to cut $1.7 million in expenses to bring the budget below the state-imposed tax cap. Around $1 million of this deficit is the result of pandemic aid ending, according to TLCSD Superintendent Russ Bartlett. The rest is the result of rising expenses and the district’s dwindling fund balance, which officials are now hesitant to draw from as it nears a level that they believe leaves little room for emergencies.

Eight of the positions being eliminated are full-time positions which were funded with COVID aid. The district is moving some of these people, whose positions are being cut, to other jobs within the district.

Nicole Curry is a Middle-High School social studies teacher and co-president of Tupper Lake Teachers United, part of the statewide NYSUT union.

Curry said state funding has been going down for years, but that COVID-era funding helped them get down the road a little bit longer. She said they didn’t realize just how important the COVID money was until it was gone.

“It felt like when we had COVID money, it was leveling the playing field,” Curry said.

She said the district spent this money on academic interventionists and experiences for students.

In the North Country, their students are far away from the museums and other extracurricular learning activities other places have. Curry said they try to supplement that and give them an experience similar to anywhere else in the state, but “it comes down to money.” Less money and less staff means that’s harder to do.

“The kids will be OK. The staff will be OK. They will adjust,” Middle-High School learning center teacher, interventionist and TLTU co-president Linda Sexton said. “I just personally hate to see us lose young, vibrant staff members.”

Intervention loss

Sexton is one of the COVID-funded interventionists whose position is being eliminated as the aid runs out.

One educational interventionist position at L.P. Quinn Elementary and two interventionist positions at the Middle High School will be cut. These positions were created during the pandemic to address students who were falling behind as the district was forced to shift to remote learning.

Sexton said the job was “very rewarding” and helpful for both students and teachers. Sexton had retired from the district and the job was a way to stay busy in the otherwise boring COVID years. She felt she’d rather be the one to get laid off than another person who needed their job.

Curry said interventionists provided a “social-emotional safety net” with an emphasis on teaching students soft skills like learning how to study, how to bridge a knowledge gap and how to navigate their lives in and out of school.

Students have increased needs post-COVID, Sexton said, especially social-emotional needs at the elementary level. Fewer staff means these needs get less attention.

Middle-High School Principal Amanda Zullo said teachers and other staff are picking up intervention classes. She said their goal is not to increase the duties of teachers, but approach the schedule differently. She had high praise for teachers’ and staff’s dedication to their students.

“Our staff works incredibly hard to ensure they meet our students’ needs,” Zullo wrote in an email to the Enterprise.

Sexton said morale has taken a hit, too. Teachers worry for their peers who are laid off or who have moved to other positions. Even if they were transferred to another job within the district or find another job right away, it’s disruptive. She said they worry for the students who lose their favorite teacher or counselor. And she said students worry about the adults and what school will look like for them next year.

One of the results of the staff cuts principals are predicting is that classes will increase in student size next year.

Sexton said it’s always difficult when class sizes increase. This means more work for everyone.

State funding

Curry said when cuts like these happen, it’s “upsetting.” She felt these cuts are not the fault of the administrators at TLCSD, rather, the constraints they have to work within.

Sexton said TLCSD gets less state funding because it has a low enrollment number. But without a wealthy or large tax base to supplement the budget, she said it puts districts like theirs at a “massive disadvantage.”

“With the funding and the way that it works in the state and its formula … it just feels that small rural schools really take the hit when financial messes are made at the state level,” Curry said. “Or when priorities at the state level decide to change, our kids suffer.”

Sexton said she’s always sad to see humanities cut. L.P. Quinn Elementary School is set to lose a music teacher and the Middle-High School is set to lose one art teacher and one music teacher.

The remaining art and music teachers will spend time at both buildings, she said, meaning their rooms will be open less often. Sexton said these art rooms are places where some students feel most comfortable.

The cuts also mean they will have fewer staff for electives.

“Families that live here who have students, they deserve a free and fair education,” Curry said. “New York state, they need to figure things out and how to fund appropriately.”

Sexton said these cuts are similar to the cuts TLCSD made in 2010 — around 25% of its staff back then. This time around, approximately 12% of roughly 165 staff are being cut.

She recalled that in 2010, TLCSD made major layoffs one year before other districts in the area made similar cuts. She said the same thing is likely happening now with the potential elimination of the state’s “save harmless” provision next year. The provision currently ensures districts don’t have a decrease in state foundation aid from year-to-year, but Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed changes to the foundation aid formula as part of her executive budget proposal, which would effectively eliminate that provision.

Sexton said the NYSUT union was “instrumental” in potentially holding off Hochul’s planned save harmless elimination, which was initially planned for this budget.

She said TLCSD’s foundation aid would not be impacted as much by this elimination, since its formula was adjusted to be more in line with enrollment a few years ago.

Sexton wondered how much lower the district’s funding can get.

If the district needs to cut positions to stay viable, then it has to, she said. The idea of schools closing is scary, she added. Sexton feels there needs to be a Tupper Lake school district. To combine with another district, as other Adirondack districts have, the bus rides would be long — around an hour for some. That’s an hour of learning time taken away each way.

Other positions, budget vote

L.P. Quinn Elementary School is set to lose a general education teacher, a teaching assistant and a special education teacher. The Middle-High School is set to lose a physical education teacher, a special education teacher and reduce the library media specialists’ time by half.

The district plans to eliminate five paraprofessionals.

The district is set to lose one additional psychologist, one additional nurse and one additional cleaner, who each spent time at both school buildings, because COVID money is running out.

The district is currently looking at presenting voters with a $21.9 million budget with a levy under the tax cap.

There will be a presentation public hearing on the budget May 13 at 6 p.m. in the Michelle A. LaMere Library at L.P. Quinn Elementary School.

The budget vote and school board election is scheduled for May 21 with polls open from noon to 8 p.m. at the library of the Middle-High School.

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This story is the second in a series on the Tupper Lake Central School District’s 2024-25 budget.


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