Tupper Lake school budget woes aired at hearing

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett speaks before a crowd at a public hearing on the 2024-25 Tupper Lake school budget on Monday. The vote on the budget will be taken on May 21. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

TUPPER LAKE — Close to 100 people showed up to a public hearing on the Tupper Lake Central School District’s proposed $21.9 million budget for 2024-25 on Monday.

Both district officials and the public described feeling financial pressure, with no apparent solutions to the school’s financial woes in sight.

The public will take a vote on the budget next Tuesday, May 21. If it passes, it will carry an 8.75% tax levy increase — a tax rate increase of $411 next year for someone with a $300,000 home. If it doesn’t pass, the district will likely need to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expenses, which would result in staff layoffs and reductions to student activities.

TLCSD is asking to raise taxes on property owners while offering fewer services this year because coronavirus pandemic-era federal funding has run out and the state is not contributing as much to public schools as district officials anticipated.

Most people are not happy with the budget for one reason or another. But the alternative of voting “no” also carries massive implications for the district.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett speaks before a crowd at a public hearing on the 2024-25 Tupper Lake school budget on Monday. The vote on the budget will be taken on May 21. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

The proposed budget would decrease spending by $464,944, or 2.08%, but because of decreased government aid, it would also increase the tax levy — the amount of taxes collected from taxpayers — by 8.75% to $10,383,450. This is below the state-imposed tax cap, which limits how much the district can raise taxes. This levy would be $835,450 higher than last year but $41,153 below the state-imposed 9.18% tax cap.

Multiple taxpayers said on Monday that their cost of living has gone up with inflation, and with taxes on every level of government continually rising, it puts them in a tough financial spot.

Seniors on fixed incomes were worried about losing their homes. The budget carries an estimated tax rate increase of $137 per $100,000 of assessed value — $274 more for a $200,000 home or $411 more for a $300,000 home.

Parents also want the best for their children. While TLCSD Superintendent Russ Bartlett said he is very proud of the work school employees put into educating kids in Tupper Lake, there are fewer and fewer people to do that.

Several full-page and front page ads in the Tupper Lake Free Press, paid for by village Trustee Eric Shaheen, tell voters to vote “no” on the budget. They blast district administrators for alleged “mismanagement” of district funds and called the Monday hearing a “smoking mirror presentation.” This week’s Free Press also had an editorial calling on voters to vote “no” on the budget because it would cause taxes to rise too much. The editorial does not offer ideas for potential cuts that could be made.

Tupper Lake Central School District Superintendent Russ Bartlett speaks before a crowd at a public hearing on the 2024-25 Tupper Lake school budget on Monday. The vote on the budget will be taken on May 21. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

But some parents said though the district is in a bad spot now, a “no” vote could be disastrous by cutting even more staff and programs from the schools. It would lighten the tax burden, but it could cut some of students’ favorite parts of school.

“How do you vote ‘no’ for this?” parent Laura LaBarge said.

A “no” vote won’t fix the problem, she felt, and only make it worse. Right now, she said public perception of the budget is to vote “no” on it because the district screwed up and mismanaged its money.

“There’s a lot of information flowing around. Not all of it is accurate,” Bartlett said on Monday.

If voters do not pass the budget, the district could either tinker with it and schedule a re-vote in June, or it could revert to a contingency budget. A contingency budget has a tax levy increase of 0%. This would drop the tax rate increase from $137 to $78 per $100,000 of assessed property value. But Bartlett said it would also result in another $835,450 in cuts, an 8.75% drop in revenue for the district. That would mean more positions cut and more people losing their jobs. Bartlett said he does not know where those cuts would come from.

“We can’t cut $835,000 worth of people and still graduate kids on time,” Bartlett said.

Anything not legally required could be cut. Usually this means cuts to extracurriculars, sports and arts go first.

Several parents were troubled by the idea of sports and music being cut or reduced.

“Anytime you cut anything, you’re cutting a connection between a kid and an adult that gets them in the classroom,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett said in the budgeting process, district officials have looked at cutting JV sports, cleaners, paraprofessionals and teacher supplies.

If a re-vote also fails, the budget would automatically go to a contingency. If a district goes to a contingency budget two years in a row, the state steps in and probably would consolidate the district, Bartlett said.

TLCSD student Logan Schaffer asked people to think about what cutting music and sports would mean for kids like him. Cutting these would be detrimental for many students’ mental health, he said.

“Because that’s what they enjoy. You can hear in the halls how they’re talking about how great sports practice was or how great the musical was,” he said.

There was a pervasive sense of loss, fear, frustration and financial anxiety in the comments made during the hearing. The loss of many school luxuries, the fear of more cuts, the frustration of taxes getting higher and the anxiety of budgeting at a time when inflation makes owning a home more challenging and government aid is in a dry season for public schools.

Bartlett said they’re all in a “lose-lose” situation.

The school’s budget is a public one. Getting everyone to agree on it is impossible, evidenced by a prolonged debate over whether the district should keep its Civic Center, which resulted in no consensus.

Everyone in the room had different priorities. Some wanted lower taxes. Some wanted more school services. Some wanted to pay teachers less. Some wanted to pay administrators less. Some wanted more counselors. Some wanted more teachers.

In one second, a parent was asking if positions being cut could be restored. In the next second, a homeowner was asking if the tax burden could be reduced.

In any case, this year’s budget carries large cuts, with around a 12% staff reduction — mostly due to funding for pandemic-era positions running out. But Bartlett said he did have to have tough conversations with around five people laid off. Even with fewer people working with students, taxpayers will be paying more this year.

The state and federal government have put TLCSD in a tough spot, Bartlett said.

He said politicians always find a way to say funding for education went up, even if that means taking out money, restoring a portion of that money and celebrating the restoration while ignoring the overall loss.

More information on the cuts and the budget vote can be found in previous parts of this series at tinyurl.com/mry2kn6n, tinyurl.com/5suczmme, tinyurl.com/2x8vvxkr and tinyurl.com/yzu2nu6x.

SROs back in budget

Bartlett said the district has added the two school resource officers it initially planned to eliminate back into the budget, saying there was strong public support for keeping the SROs.

These officers — Sgt. Geoffrey Carmichael and retired former chief Tom Fee — are primarily stationed at L.P. Quinn Elementary School and the Middle-High School on school days, where they provide security, educational and emotional support. These two village employees are contracted from the village and paid for by the school at around $140,000 per year.

There was strong demand from the community to keep these positions. The village was considering picking up the cost of the SROs with the town, but Bartlett said some educational and social employees have since indicated that they are leaving the district and through shifting around some funds, the district can keep the SROs and keep budget the same.

Capital project accounts for increase

Bartlett said 5% of the budget alone is taken up by the start of a $20.5 million capital improvement plan Tupper Lake voters narrowly approved in October. He said the remaining 4% tax increase in the budget is typical for increased costs of operation in a year of high inflation.

The capital improvement plan to improve security and upgrade all of its major school buildings got almost 60% of the vote in October — 144 voted “yes” and 99 voted “no.”

Shaheen’s ad miscalculated this and added the capital project to the budget a second time to calculate an alleged $500 increase in school taxes. But Bartlett said the ad was inaccurate — the cost of the capital project starting was already included in the budget.

The state will pay for 78% of the project, with the state Education Department picking up about $15.2 million of the bill. This leaves Tupper Lake taxpayers to foot the $5.3 million difference over the next 17 years. This will cost taxpayers who own property valued at $200,000 between $96 and $156 more a year for 17 years.

The state reimbursement only comes after the district spends the money.


Bartlett said people tell him the district spends a lot of money for only graduating a couple dozen kids a year. But he said for the district’s size and location, it’s on the lower end of spending in both groups compares to similar districts. These comparisons can be viewed at tinyurl.com/3swwrev8.

“I don’t feel like we’re overspending,” Bartlett said. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s what it costs to do the job.”

Tupper Lake has the lowest spending per student ratio out of all Tri-Lakes schools, roughly $29,608 for the 2023-24 school year.

The hole

Bartlett said the district’s current situation was caused in part because of his “PTSD” from the 2021-22 budget vote. This budget, which was right below the tax cap, passed by only eight votes. Bartlett said this told him the district can’t ask for a particularly large increase from the community. In the following years, the district used its fund balance to bring the levy down comfortably below the cap to get these budgets to pass. But this drained the reserves and has another downside.

When a district does not levy all the taxes the state allows it to, it reduces the maximum amount it can levy in the next year, which means they need to pull more from the fund balance to meet the cap. This impacts the cap the following year and so on. Bartlett said this created an unsustainable cycle of decreasing revenue and reserves which got them into a hole.

“I think my own reservations about asking too much from the community probably had a little bit to do with getting us to where we are,” Bartlett said.

He had hoped there would be more public school funding during the 2022 gubernatorial election and this year’s presidential election cycle — as is typical — but that did not pan out in these elections.

Instead, this year, he said Gov. Kathy Hochul used a new formula to calculate the cost of living adjustment in its school aid formula, which placed it 2% lower than normal. Bartlett said this was “a veiled way to reduce school funding,” adding that the school aid was the only place the state used that new formula.

Hochul’s plan to end the “save harmless” provision this year was stopped after lobbying from the state teachers union, which saved TLCSD from losing $140,000 in state aid this year. But Hochul has indicated she plans to eliminate it next year, so Bartlett said they are preparing for the loss.

The state and federal governments are both pulling back from funding public schools. Bartlett said TLCSD is likely seeing the affects of this sooner than most, and anticipated many more districts will be struggling next year.

But several people on Monday wondered if the district could be allocating its money better.

“As a school employee I see a lot of increases that do not make sense to me,” High School Counselor Brian Bennett said.

Several people felt the school salaries were high, especially the administrative salaries.

Bartlett said teacher pay is determined by contracts with the union and it is illegal to break these agreements, so teacher pay can not be altered. He added that TLCSD is in the bottom third of districts in terms of teacher pay for the region and size.

Bartlett said the administrative salaries are lower than the average, too. He’s retiring after graduation this year. He said with a shortage of teachers, and an ongoing search for a new superintendent, it is hard to attract applicants with low salaries.

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

May 21 will also be the day of the school board election. Board President Jane Whitmore and Vice President Jason Rolley are both running uncontested to keep their seats.

For the first year this year, New York is allowing universal mail-in voting with no excuse. Previously, absentee mail-in voting was only allowed if voters met certain conditions.

Absentee and early voting ballots can be requested from TLCSD Clerk Shauni Kavanagh’s office starting on May 7. Completed applications must be returned at least seven days before the election if the ballot is to be mailed to the voter, or the day before the election if the ballot is to be delivered in person to the voter.

Absentee ballots must be returned by 3 p.m. on May 21, the day of the vote.


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