Apr 12, 2022
TUPPER LAKE — The proposed budget for the Tupper Lake Central School District’s upcoming fiscal year falls below the state tax cap and uses around $1 million in federal pandemic stimulus money to help maintain current staffing and programs.
To pay for the proposed $22,691,048 budget and help the district stay below the state tax cap, TLCSD Business Administrator Dan Bower said the district plans to use federal stimulus money to offset its pandemic-related costs, use a little over half a million dollars from the district’s fund balance and up its tax levy — the amount of money collected from taxpayers — by just over 3%.
The district plans to spend around $2 million more in the coming fiscal year, a projected 10.42% increase in spending. TLCSD Superintendent Russ Bartlett said this is a big increase, but spending is higher because there’s more revenue to spend — the district got a lot of extra money from state and federal government this year, nearly 14% more aid than last year.
The district plans to increase its tax levy by 3.058% to $9,551,162, in order to keep up with inflation-related expense hikes, in preparation for future years.
The state imposed a 3.064% tax cap on the district’s tax levy this year, meaning the district could only increase the amount of taxes it collects from taxpayers by 3.064% or less. The district would need voters to authorize a tax cap override if it wanted to increase its tax levy above that.
The $275,229 proposed increase in the tax levy is “almost identical” to last year, Bower said. This increase is around $500 below the $275,765 allowable levy increase.
Bower said the district’s goal is always to raise the tax levy as much as possible to prepare for the future. With inflation up near 8%, the price of everything the schools buy is up — from gas for buses to food. With that in mind, Bower said the district needs as much money as possible for the coming year.
“In a perfect world, we collect every dollar,” Bower said. “You don’t have another chance to collect that again.”
He also noted that each year’s tax levy plays a part in calculating the next year’s tax cap.
“If you don’t stay near the cap, every year you’re lowering next year’s base,” Bower said.
Bower said the district is not able to tell voters what the tax rate attached to the proposed budget will be yet. With the tax rate, voters would be able to calculate how much in school taxes they may owe in the upcoming fiscal year. There are several state and county property assessment figures that won’t be released until late spring, so the district can’t really calculate a proposed tax rate, he said.
The TLCSD board of education proposed the budget at its last meeting. Taxpayers will be able to vote on the budget on May 17.
Stimulus aid makes for ‘positive’ budget
Bower said this is the most complicated budget the district has ever assembled because of the various coronavirus-related and state-imposed funding mechanisms, but because of the stimulus aid, he’s “more positive” about this budget than he usually is.
Bartlett said a highlight of the budget is that the district is maintaining its staff, programs and services.
The budget this year is supplemented by around $1 million in federal stimulus money from the coronavirus pandemic.
Bower and Bartlett said the stimulus money made for a comfortable budgeting process. They never had to think about taking things away. Bower said the district has been given around $2.4 million in stimulus aid in total, and he is spreading the spending of it out over the course of three years to use it gradually and avoid a financial cliff.
All the federal pandemic aid must be used or committed to projects by the end of 2024.
The primary use for the stimulus money is to address learning loss during the pandemic. Bower said not everyone adapted to school in the pandemic the same, so the district is looking to individually find where some students need to catch up and help them get that knowledge back.
After two years of operating during a pandemic, Bower was cautiously optimistic.
“From a financial standpoint, we’re OK,” he said.
Bartlett said the positive and negative effects of the pandemic had on school finances ultimately “balanced out.”
There were financial upsides to the pandemic. In December 2019, the state told school districts to prepare for cuts because it had a $6 billion deficit. When federal coronavirus money came in, the state filled that hole and staved off cuts.
The stimulus money allowed the district to experiment a bit with instruction, too. Bartlett said a number of Clifton-Fine students are taking a math class at TLCSD remotely. He said districts will likely need to share teachers more often in the near future.
“Everybody’s going to be in that boat with the teacher shortage,” Bartlett said.
By sharing teachers between districts, the districts can get BOCES aid, too.
This year, TLCSD is getting a $401,584 increase in state aid through BOCES because the district is sharing more services with other districts through BOCES. When the district buys services or products, it doesn’t get anything back. But when it buys through BOCES, sharing costs with other districts, it gets state aid back on its purchases.
Bartlett called this a “win, win, win.”
He said school districts are finding creative solutions to budgetary problems through the pandemic.
“Maximize efficiency everywhere possible,” Bartlett said.
State school aid
The district had to finish its proposed budget before the state passed its budget, and before school administrators knew exactly how much they could get in school aid. New York’s budget was due April 1 but passed on April 9.
Schools based state aid numbers on Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget proposal. Bower said the final state budget’s school aid is almost always higher than the governor’s proposed number. Based on that, Bartlett said they choose to err on the low end and assume her figures represent the lowest amount the state will grant.
Bower said school aid was slightly higher in the final budget, but almost the same as they had planned for.
The state gave TLCSD more funding for universal pre-K for the first time since it started in 1998. The district had always gotten $97,000 from the state each year, but Bower said it costs the district more than that.
He said the district got around $140,000 extra this year. He was happy. He’s been advocating for adequate funding for universal pre-K for years. He said he’s waiting to learn if the money is to be used on the current program, or if districts are expected to expand it.
School districts’ fund balance — the amount of money it keeps in reserves for future use — is limited to a maximum of 4% of the subsequent year’s budget by law, but Bower said it is common practice for districts to keep fund balances higher than that. It’s just not responsible to have reserves that low, he said.
TLCSD has an 8.6% fund balance right now — worth around $1.5 million — and will be appropriating around $525,000 from that fund for this year’s budget. That is one-third of the fund balance going toward this year’s budget.
Bower said the tax levy would be near 6% — much higher than the allowable cap — if not for the district using its fund balance.
TLCSD is planning a district-wide capital project which it will present to the public for a vote on in the fall.
Free lunches may end
When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, the federal government created a free school lunch program. This expanded free and reduced meals to all students and reimbursed districts who fed kids for free at the highest rate the United States Department of Agriculture allows.
But Bower said that legislation will expire at the end of June and will undoubtedly have severe impacts on many families.
Bower said because of the free lunches, participation in school is up. Students came to class more often when they would get fed at school for free. He said these free meals for everyone removed the stigma of getting free and reduced lunches and he said students who didn’t qualify for free and reduced lunches benefited from the program a lot too.
They are trying to get federal legislators to lobby the USDA to extend this program.
“I don’t understand why, of all times, now,” Bower said of it ending.
“We’re staring down close to 8% inflation and now is the time they choose,” Bartlett said.
They issued a call to action for families who want this program to continue. Bower said he is writing to Tupper Lake’s federal representatives, including U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“If you liked this, make sure you call somebody,” Bower said.
Vote and election day
Although costs for schools and the money they ask of taxpayers is always on the rise, Bartlett and Bower say they hope people feel that they’re getting value out of their contributions.
People have to pay taxes to educate the next generation in public schools, they pointed out.
Voting on the proposed budget is scheduled for May 17 from noon to 8 p.m. at the Tupper Lake Middle-High School Library on Chaney Avenue.
The ballot will also include an election for an open board of education seat. Dave Dewyea’s seat is up for election and carries a three-year term. Dewyea said he plans to run for his seat again.
The deadline for submitting petitions to run is by the end of the day on April 18.
Voters will also vote on a proposition for purchasing two new buses. The proposition, if approved, would allow the district to borrow money for the vehicles and pay off its debt over five years. The debt for these bonds is included in the budget.
The board will present the budget to the public at its meeting on May 9.
Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox
ALBANY — New York is set to rely on an influx of federal funds and higher-than-expected tax revenues to balance a …
Today’s breaking news and more in your inbox
$22.6M Tupper Lake school budget proposed | News, Sports, Jobs – The Adirondack Daily Enterprise
Apr 12, 2022