Saranac Lake voters back turf field, reelect three to school board

SARANAC LAKE — Voters in the Saranac Lake Central School District on Tuesday voted to approve the school’s $37.3 million budget proposal and to approve a controversial proposition to convert a grass field inside the high school track to an artificial turf field. Voters also reelected incumbents Nancy Bernstein, Justin Garwood and Tori Thurston to the school board.

“We’ve never had a busier in-person vote than we did yesterday,” SLCSD Superintendent Diane Fox said on Wednesday. “When we say that every vote counts, I think that yesterday was really an example of that.”

The $37.3 million budget passed easily with 83.7% of the vote — 1,212 “yes” votes to 236 “no.” It was the propositions surrounding the proposed upgrades to the high school athletic field that were more contentious.

Supporters said artificial turf would be a boon for young athletes, extending the time period that they’re able to practice and play outdoors in the spring and fall, increasing the use of the field by more teams, reducing maintenance, potentially discouraging geese from flocking and defecating there and providing an overall better playing space.

Opponents had health and environmental concerns about turf, which can contain PFAS “forever chemicals” with numerous health risks, and are known for causing more injuries in professional sports.

The vote approving the artificial turf field, lights and scoreboard was a narrow one. It was approved with just a 53.59% majority. With 1,478 total votes, 792 voted for the turf and 686 voted against it.

A secondary proposition, to authorize the purchase of bleachers for this field at a maximum cost of $1.25 million, passed by a slightly larger margin — 58.8%, or 862 to 604.

Board election

Seven candidates ran for three school board seats: Incumbents Justin Garwood, Tori Thurston and Nancy Bernstein, and challengers Scott McKim, Patrick Dupree, Jackie Niederbuhl and Rebecca Law.

“Thank you to the seven people who voluntarily stepped up to help guide the district,” Fox wrote. “The conversations had because of the competitiveness of the race were valuable.”

Garwood earned the most votes, with 989. Bernstein earned 832. Thurston earned 560. These three will keep their seats, which expire in 2027.

McKim came the closest to unseating one of the incumbents, with 495 votes. Niederbuhl earned 460 votes. Law earned 419 votes. Dupree earned 389 votes.

Dupree, Niederbuhl and Law were all running with a focus on keeping Bloomingdale Elementary School viable in the future after consultants recommended the board of education consider closing it in a few years.

Bernstein thanked voters for their support.

With seven people getting into the race for three seats, she was concerned with her odds — more people would not get elected than those that did. But she was also confident she had been doing a good job on the board.

Bernstein said she would work well with anybody, but she was glad to continue working with Thurston and Garwood.

“I hope that the candidates who didn’t get elected this time will consider running in future years because there won’t always be so many people wanting to do it, and we need good people that care,” she said.

Garwood said he was “overwhelmed with support.” He said he’s been busy on the board organizing the district’s new mascot and will have big projects on the horizon with the turf field and their first search for a new superintendent in a decade anticipated in a few years.

He chalked his big voter turnout up to transparency and the mascot process, something which was beyond the call of duty of the board and which he felt showed that he cares about the school.

He’s glad he’ll be working with Bernstein and Thurston. They know the lay of the land, he said.

The board members don’t always all agree with each other, but they handle their discussions democratically, he said.

Thurston thanked everybody for their support — at the polls and in conversations in the past week. She said people reaching out to talk with her after she called an emergency board meeting to address anti-transgender comments made by a parent at a flag football game last week meant a lot.

It was not a happy school board week, she said. They sometimes work on difficult things.

Thurston had said before the election that she knew addressing this would not be popular in some circles, but that she didn’t care if it lost her the election because it would be doing what she believes is right for children.

She wants to look at the district policies to make sure they are clear and broad enough. Policies are not enough, she said, adding that the community needs to keep itself accountable.

Thurston said she was glad to get reelected and said she plans to immediately get back to work.

She has meetings with the Healthy School Meals for All coalition scheduled for next week. She’s been lobbying with this group for universal free school meals in the past year.

Thurston said some of the schools’ textbooks are out of date. They’re supposed to all have copyrights within the past five years. So the curriculum needs to be updated.

And she wants to collaborate with other local districts to increase their voice on the state level.

Thurston said she feels lucky to continue to work with Bernstein and Garwood.

The field project

The turf, lights and scoreboard project approved on Tuesday will not increase local taxes. The project will use $2.8 million of the district’s $3.8 million Capital Reserve Fund — a construction fund for borrowing money — along with $397,563 in additional capital funds.

State aid should offset the cost of borrowing, leaving no local taxpayer impact.

The bleachers and press box project could only be approved if the field proposition was approved. This one carries a cost for local taxpayers. The total estimated cost of the project can not exceed $1,250,000.

The district will take out a $1.25 million loan to be paid off over 15 years.

This is estimated to have an $8 per year impact for someone who owns a $200,000 home in the district. Property owners with STAR exemptions would have a $7 impact and those with senior exemptions would have a $4 impact.

“I acknowledge the concerns raised around environmental issues and associated costs for taxpayers and am committed to ensuring transparency and fiscal responsibility throughout the project,” Fox wrote in an email to the Enterprise.

She said the district will have a choice in its artificial turf product, and she’s already reached out to see what the options are. Fox said they want the turf to match the state’s coming ban on PFAS in artificial turf to start in 2026.

The district is putting together a proposal for the state Education Department, which has review times of around 26 weeks. Fox said this will be the main factor in meeting their planned deadline of Fall 2025 for the field and bleacher projects.

Board members said now that the projects are in the district’s hands, they’ll make sure the public’s concerns are considered as they vote on the next steps.

“No question, I want it to be environmentally safe,” Bernstein said.

She appreciated the informative research and comments from the public and said she will focus on choosing a product the experts recommend, adding that their concerns have been heard.

Garwood said their concerns are valid, but he personally feels turf is “100% the way to go.”

“The (Adirondack Park Agency) has to approve anything we do, so they’re going to keep us honest and they’re going to make sure that what we do does not have a negative impact on the environment,” he said.

He hopes the board will hold more public hearings on the project as it continues.

Thurston said she understands the environmental concerns and wants more research done into potential chemical runoff from the field, to ensure safety. She said she’ll keep asking questions and if she finds any problems, she’ll bring them up.

Thurston said she wants the community to stay involved, mentioning that board member’s emails are listed on the district website to talk.

Garwood said the field could attract people to live here. It’s not cheap to live in Saranac Lake, but offering quality school facilities could give people a reason to pay top dollar to live here.

He also envisioned driving down state Route 3 next spring and seeing a game being played under the lights with fans cheering and a new mascot running up and down the sidelines. That’s community spirit to him.

Other propositions

Voters also widely approved the purchase of two buses and one van with the price to not exceed $335,000, with 87.94% of voters approving it.

A proposition to borrow up to $2.3 million to conduct an energy performance contract involving upgrades to school buildings passed with 85.49% of the vote.

A proposition allowing the district to levy $511,895 in taxes on behalf of the Saranac Lake Free Library was approved with 80% of the vote.

The budget

Fox said she was “deeply grateful” to voters for approving their budget, saying she would ensure the way it is spent will reflect their faith in the district.

“People are good to us and we do appreciate it and I do try to be a good steward with their funds,” Fox said.

The passed budget is $1.3 million, or 3.61%, higher than the previous budget.

The budget falls below the state-imposed tax cap. It carries a tax levy of $24,492,938, with an estimated tax rate of around $8.20 per $1,000 in assessed value, 28 cents higher than this year’s tax rate. For a person with a $300,000 home in SLCSD, school taxes would be approximately $2,460, an increase of roughly $84.

It will pull $2.37 million from the unassigned fund balance.


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