School vote less than one week from today

Voters will weigh in on school budgets across the region on May 21, less than one week from today. Debates abound on districts’ spending plans and their merits, but what matters most is showing up to cast your vote.

School districts tend to struggle with budgets every year, but between the end of coronavirus pandemic-era federal aid, the rising costs of essentials pretty much across the board and the ultimately-deferred threat of state foundation aid cuts, this year has become a particularly difficult one as school boards struggle to balance students’ needs with mitigating the burden on taxpayers.

Many districts are facing painful cuts. In Tupper Lake, the district’s $21.9 million budget proposal calls for an overall 12% reduction in staff, though district administrators say the positions cut will largely be temporary ones that were funded by federal aid. Saranac Lake, too, would see multiple full- or part-time interventionist positions funded by federal aid eliminated through its $37.3 million budget proposal, jobs that helped bridge the learning gap caused by remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. At AuSable Valley Central School District, the $37.9 million budget would cut school library funding by more than half — placing the responsibility for libraries in different buildings onto one single librarian — and also slash guidance and attendance funding. These cuts would be the result of downsizing through attrition, meaning that jobs of people leaving would not be refilled. These cuts, though small in number in the grand scheme of things, will no doubt loom large for students, staff and the communities as a whole — in the North Country, school districts are major employers.

These cuts won’t give districts as much wiggle room as one would expect. That’s why schools’ rising expenses are painful, too. Despite the cuts, taxes would still increase in nearly every local school district. Though most people would say that spending on education is a major priority, many taxpayers are also seeing their home assessments rise, tax bills becoming increasingly burdensome. Many of us are experiencing the same impact of the rising cost of living that school districts are seeing, just on a smaller scale.

Despite that, some schools are proposing some new amenities or new jobs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but something for voters to consider.

Saranac Lake’s Proposition 4, for example, would authorize the school to take out a $1.25 million loan to pay for new bleachers and a press box — $823,000 of that would be for the bleachers alone. Given that the cost of steel has skyrocketed since the pandemic, that’s understandable, though it’ll ultimately be up to voters to decide if that expense is necessary. The district’s Proposition 3, which would authorize the school to convert its grass athletic field to artificial turf –though controversial for a variety of reasons, including some taxpayers’ fears of its environmental or health impacts — would have no financial impact on local taxpayers, according to Superintendent Diane Fox.

In Keene, the $8.6 million budget proposal includes money for additional staff — one full-time teaching assistant and a part-time Spanish teacher. Again, an understandable expense, but up to voters to decide whether they believe the proposed fiscal plan warrants the tax increases.

Other expenses are head-scratchers, like Lake Placid Central School District’s plan to purchase, rather than lease, two 68-passenger school buses and one 65-passenger school bus — all three fueled by gas. This proposition, which will be on the ballot but separate from the main budget vote, comes as some school board members aim to put off adhering to the state’s mandated transition to electric vehicles. The district is instead planning to operate with a hybrid fleet for as long as possible. It’s clear from school board meetings that some members believe, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, that electric buses are less safe than diesel buses or won’t do well in the cold. There’s some members of the school board who are probably hoping, perhaps futilely, that the state government might reverse its electric school bus mandate — despite the need to curb carbon emissions, in light of the climate crisis, only becoming more dire with time.

Your vote on your local school’s budget does matter. In Tupper Lake, for example, if the budget does not pass, the school will either schedule a revote in June or it will be forced to revert to a contingency budget. Superintendent Russ Bartlett said this would result in another $800,000 in cuts and would likely mean more positions cut and more people losing their jobs. In Saranac Lake, in addition to the budget, voters will be electing three out of seven school board members. In Keene, the district needs a supermajority vote for the budget to pass at all, because it exceeds the state tax cap.

There are plenty of ways to find out exactly how local school districts are proposing to spend taxpayer money. Multiple stories have been printed in this newspaper over the past few weeks and those stories are available online at www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com. But districts also send out mailers with information, post budget documents on their websites and for the most part, school board members and administrators can be easily contacted to answer any questions.

Voters, exercise your right to have a say on May 21.


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