In his 28 years in Clarence and 14 years on the School Board, Michael Lex has never seen anything like the vote that soundly rejected the school budget and its 9.8 percent tax hike Tuesday.
The board president attributes it to taxpayer fatigue.
“New York State has made it very clear that a district like Clarence, which has a high wealth index, if they want the school system that they’ve been used to, that they were going to pay for it,” Lex said. “Yesterday’s vote was a message that they’re not going to.”
But it wasn’t just residents in Clarence who have had enough. Budgets were also defeated in Alden; Lewiston-Porter, Niagara Wheatfield and Wilson in Niagara County; and Bemus Point in Chautauqua County.
“I think people generally have hit the wall,” said Lynn Fusco, superintendent of the Alden Central School District, where voters rejected a proposal to increase tax revenue by 3 percent. The budget would have left programs intact.
“We thought we were providing something that the community wanted at a level that the community could support financially, and I think it’s just overwhelming,” Fusco said. “It’s absolutely overwhelming for our communities to be taxed at the level that they are.”
Budget rejections weren’t the norm Tuesday. Voters in 32 districts in Erie and Niagara counties approved school budgets, including three proposals that will increase taxes collected by 4.5 percent or more. But a vocal campaign to defeat the budget in Clarence that included mailers and signs has placed a focus on voters who have drawn the line at how much they are willing to pay.
It’s also sparked a discussion there about what steps the district should take as it moves forward.
“This was such an opportunity for everybody to come together and to say, ‘What can we do to make this school sustainable?’ ” said Lisa Thrun, a Clarence resident who actively campaigned against the budget proposal through a group known as Citizens for Sustainable Schools.
The group, along with another coalition known as Clarence Taxpayers, has advocated for three proposals that members believe would help curb district costs in the long term: renegotiate a higher health insurance contribution for employees, continue to reduce the size of the district as enrollment declines and offer an incentive to encourage teachers at the top of the pay scale to retire.
Thrun said she and others who campaigned against the budget in Clarence would support a new budget proposal that remained within the district’s 3.79 percent tax cap set by the state. “We feel that the community can give that much,” she said. “We just need the school and the district to find a way to meet that.”
The budget proposition in Clarence drew a record number of voters Tuesday as 8,232 of the town’s roughly 30,000 residents turned out.
Clarence School Board members plan to meet May 28 to begin crafting a new budget proposal within the tax cap, which will require trimming $2.44 million from the spending proposal.
Districts in which budgets failed have the option of presenting a second proposal to voters June 18 or asking residents to reconsider the failed budget. The five districts in Erie and Niagara counties whose budgets were rejected appear headed toward additional budget cuts.
“The turnout was quite remarkable, and the results speak for themselves,” Lex said. “It would be foolish to put the same item up again.”
Voter concern over the proposed tax increase in Clarence built up in the months before Tuesday’s vote as residents attended budget meetings and created websites to support their causes. But the voter turnout was also fueled by mailers urging residents to reject the tax hike. The mailers were paid for by unidentified members of Citizens for Sustainable Schools.
Thrun rejected speculation that her previous volunteer work for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded by Charles and David Koch, was connected to her advocacy on the budget vote. All of the money raised by Citizens for Sustainable Schools to pay for fliers and signs came from local sources in the community, she said. “This was all money that was raised here in Clarence,” she said. “Not one cent of it was from a different organization or anything like that.”
The group, which did not endorse candidates in the election, doesn’t plan to disclose who paid for the mailers, Thrun said. People who contributed to the cause, she said, did not want to be identified because of concern over the tone the debate had taken. “We had an attorney look at it because we wanted to make sure that we were in complete compliance,” Thrun said.
Campaign reporting requirements for school board elections apply only to candidates, said Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Wilson, Alden and Niagara Wheatfield saw their budgets defeated despite the fact they were within each district’s tax cap. But across the state Tuesday, 98.3 percent of districts that proposed budgets within the tax cap saw them passed, according to the New York School Boards Association.
• Candidates (Elect three): Patrick Law, 583; Nancy Fumerelle (i), 537; John Spencer (i), 498; Gabrielle Miller, 485; Nicole Simon, 237.
• Budget: Yes, 593; No, 340.
• Proposition 2: Use $460,851 from reserve fund to buy two large school buses, four 28-seat vans and a plow truck for the Buildings and Grounds Department: Yes, 689; No, 243.
• Candidates: No board race this year.
• Budget: Yes, 975; No, 558.
• Proposition 2: Purchase a total of eight buses for $863,739: Yes, 935; No, 595.
• Candidates (Elect two): Sharon Szeglowski, Daniel T. Behlmaier
• Budget: Yes, 1,198; No, 624.
• Proposition 2: Purchase three (62-passenger) buses and two vans at a maximum cost of $400,000: Yes, 1,188; No, 623.
• Proposition 3: Expend $60,000 from the district’s Capital Reserve Fund known as the Technology Reserve Fund: Yes, 1,314; No, 493.
• Candidates (Elect three): Frank Calieri, 1,364; Kate Newton, 1,250; Carol Jarczyk (i), 1,180; Julie Goodwin; Timothy Elling; John C. Oshei; Karl Spencer; Christen Buchholtz.
• Budget: Yes, 1,941; No, 858.