Voters headed to the polls today to cast their votes for school board members and budgets.
Compared with recent years, many school budgets up for a vote today in Erie and Niagara counties are a bit vanilla.
A boost in state aid helped many districts avoid the type of deep cuts to classrooms, sports and arts that have worried parents in recent years. All but one school district will stay within the state tax cap. And a promise of a state rebate check will offset tax increases in school districts that do stay within the cap.
“For the most part, we don’t see huge reductions,” said David Albert of the New York School Boards Association. “This year it seems to be moderating a bit, and hopefully this is going to be a turn-around year for schools.”
Still, school administrators will be closely watching the polls as voters in 37 school districts weigh in on school spending for the 2014-15 school year.
Voters will also choose school board members for 83 open seats in Erie and Niagara counties. Those races could boost turnout in some districts where candidates have planted lawn signs and circulated fliers in the days leading up to the election. In Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, for example, six candidates are running for two seats on a board that has been focused on downsizing schools. In Hamburg, anonymous mailers delivered to some homes over the weekend were the latest controversy in an election for two seats on a deeply divided board. Hamburg voter Rose Boswell, on her way to cast her vote today, said people “are kind of fed up” with the board.
Click here for more on the candidates, including their positions on key issues.
While a few local elections could spark voter interest, turnout in school board elections has historically been small. Between 10 to 15 percent of residents typically cast votes in communities across the state, Albert said.
But there’s a lot at stake. Residents will have a say in how tens of millions of dollars get spent in each school district. They will decide whether to buy buses, start construction projects or sell buildings. In Springville-Griffith, residents will be asked to reverse a decision to downsize the community’s school board
Paul Hashem, interim superintendent at Frontier Central, said school leaders across the region felt pressured by a new state rebate program to stay within a tax cap that limits the amount of tax revenue each district can raise. The program, approved by state lawmakers earlier this spring, will send checks to homeowners for the amount of their increasing school property taxes in the fall in school districts that stay within the cap.
“It’s a political issue for Albany, but frankly for the school districts and the communities, it’s more of a personal issue,” Hashem said. “Because it really doesn’t allow us to make the kind of decisions that we could make based on the needs of the district, and we’re not talking about giving away the store.”
Districts have also seen the impact of the tax cap at the polls. Last year, according to the New York School Boards Association, 98.3 percent of school budgets within the tax cap passed on the first try across the state, compared with 25 percent that exceeded the cap.
Holland is the only school district in Western New York that will seek the 60 percent voter approval needed to override the state’s tax cap. The cap is based on the rate of inflation, but other factors can make it higher or lower, and in Holland the cap would have required the district to lower the tax levy. District leaders cut spending but said an increase in tax revenue was needed to maintain school programs.
While better-than-expected state aid levels for 2014-15 helped many districts balance budgets, many still would rely on spending savings and cutting jobs to lessen budget increases. School administrators remain concerned that state aid remains below levels they received before a state budget crisis in 2010-11, even as state-required expenses, such a pension costs, continue to increase.
“The sense of many school district leaders is they’ve been given an extremely difficult or even an impossible task because we’ve had limitations on state aid and revenues and not a lot of action on mandate relief,” said Robert N. Lowry Jr., deputy director of the Council of School Superintendents.
Across the state, school districts are proposing to increase tax revenue by the lowest amount in five years, according to the New York School Boards Association.
“There’s a high level of caution,” said Donald Ogilvie, districts superintendent for Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services. “I think there’s a disciplined approach to budgeting and to increases in the tax levy, and part of it is the capping, but part of it is uncertainty about what the out years will be.”
Hashem, who has run several local school districts on an interim basis since his retirement from Lackawanna schools, said many school administrators are concerned that budget trends that have forced districts to dip into savings could lead some districts into bankruptcy in future years. But today, those administrators will be focused on whether voters will approve their 2014-15 spending plans.
Polls in most school districts in Erie and Niagara counties will be open until 8 or 9 p.m. today
“For all of us, it’s going to be a hope-and-pray day,” Hashem said.
For complete coverage and results of the election, come to BuffaloNews.com tonight.