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Patricia Downs displays her prize-winning dress made out of gum wrappers
Patricia Downs displays her prize-winning dress made out of gum wrappers

Plattsburgh school district exceeds tax cap, asks for taxpayer support

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Schools around the North Country are trying figure out how to provide quality education in the midst of a historic budget squeeze. In Plattsburgh, school officials are asking taxpayers to do more to keep enrichment and arts programs alive. Sarah Harris has that story.

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Sarah Harris
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It’s earth day at Plattsburgh high school. Students are crowded into the gymnasium, learning about recycling and composting. They’re making reusable shopping bags from old t-shirts. They’re encouraging their peers to bike to school. And then there’s the junk-to-funk art contest. 

Patricia Downs just won first place for a dress she made out of blue and silver gum wrappers.  

"I used five cobalt gum wrappers and extra smooth mint gum wrappers and I put them together with packing tape, masking tape, and a little bit of duct tape," she explained. 

The dress is cool – it’s strapless, with swirling silver designs across the bodice and a poofy blue skirt. And even though making a dress out of gum wrappers isn’t part of a traditional school curriculum, Patricia says that events like the junk-to-funk art contest matter to students – and shouldn’t be cut.

"I’m an extremely big supporter of the arts, and it would be a big problem especially for kids like me who love to express themselves in artistic and creative ways. It’s something that well-rounded students need to do well in life," she said.

 The event’s been put on by Plattsburgh High School’s Green Team, an extracurricular environmental club.

It’s one of many enrichment opportunities the school district offers that isn’t required by the state. James Short, Plattsburgh City School district superintendent,  says this is one of the programs that could be eliminated when tax payers vote on the school budget.

"Over a number of years the Plattsburgh city school district has built a strong school system—a lot of electives, a lot of components for students. Over the last 4 years, we’ve been dramatically reduced in our state aid. So we’ve been pushing the taxpayer side and been increasing taxes. Now we’re at a tipping point."

This is the question that school districts across the North Country are asking: where to draw the line. How much can you cut and still offer a rich, diverse educational experience? Plattsburgh City school district has already eliminated 13 ½ positions in the high school over the past couple years. This year’s proposed budget cut 5 fulltime teaching jobs and funding for sports, field trips, and the after school programs. 

But Short says that by exceeding the tax cap, the district can protect existing programs it deems essential to a quality education. They’re asking taxpayers to pay an increased 5.82 percent tax. But since that’s higher than the tax cap, the school budget needs a 60% majority vote in order to pass.   

"There are people that strongly want to support the school budget—they place a high high value on education and they don’t want to see programs erode away or co-curriculars erode from the student body," said Short. "On the other side, people are strained with taxes. So really, we’ll see how much the community values the education it has been allowed to have with the school system." 

If the budget doesn’t pass, the district will have to reconsider a lot of its offerings – the engineering program at the high school, the district-wide music program, foreign language classes, child advocate positions. Intramurals, clubs, and athletics could be reduced. They may have to decide whether or not they can offer pre-kindergarten and if they have to reduce kindergarten to a half day. 

"All those are dramatic moves educationally within the system. It takes away form a richer opportunity for students and it frankly takes away from their ability to compete going into universities or even compete at a university level. Any little bit you take away does have an effect," Short said.

Thousands of kids in the north country are waiting to find out how their parents and other community members will answer this question when they vote on the budget. Will the cuts continue? Or will taxpayers take on the financial burden required by a high quality school system?

Plattsburgh high school senior Jackie Moore is deeply involved in the school orchestra and chorus. She says that cutting things like music and sports means taking away the parts of school that many students care about most." I mean these are the kids that are going to lead the country in a few years and they need a good basis. It’s a tax increase and I know I’m not a tax payer but I don’t understand that part of it but some things are probably worth it. You know, save the things that really should be saved even though it’s not mandated by state government," she said.

The Plattsburgh city school budget vote is scheduled for May 15.

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