Voters in Niagara County's 10 public school districts Tuesday approved budgets for the next school year worth a total of $490 million, and elected 23 members to school boards.
A generous increase in state aid was credited for the ease with which several budgets passed. Eight of 10 Niagara County school districts received a significant increase in state aid for next year. Even the North Tonawanda and Lewiston-Porter school districts, whose state aid will increase by less than 3 percent, saw their budgets pass with relative ease.
The big upsets came in the North Tonawanda School Board race, where Board President Scott Schultz and fellow board member Deborah Wasieczko were defeated decisively, receiving 370 and 371 votes, respectively, while the winners, Martin Burruano and Jeffrey Glatz, totaled 751 and 746, respectively.
Eric Bloom was upended in his bid to be re-elected to the Wilson School Board. Mark Randall, a school bus driver, edged Bloom, 341-333.
As for budget votes, the Barker Central School District's $19 million spending package passed in a 253-93 vote, despite a 7 percent property tax rate increase that will raise taxes by just over $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation and see 10 district employees laid off next year.
The Barker budget will not go up a penny over this year's spending package. Both the job cuts and tax increase will compensate for an anticipated $800,000 deficit.
The reason: The school district is having financial problems because the Niagara County Industrial Development agency gave AES Inc., the company that runs the coal-burning power plant in Somerset, a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal that would undercut district property taxes next year to the tune of up to $1.35 million.
That deal is being contested in the state court system. Residents apparently did not hold the board responsible for the IDA's actions, and ponied up to the table in the voting booth even though school officials were not sure how the issue would be resolved.
"Voters understand the situation [the AES-IDA agreement] has placed the district in," Barker School Superintendent Steven J. LaRock said. "It was something put upon us, not something we've done. We've been trying to deal with it in a positive way for both our kids and the taxpayers. We've got that information out, and I think people understand what's going on."
In Niagara Falls, voters approved a $121 million budget that contained no tax increase for the 15th straight year, but a proposition seeking permission to sell district property for an Aldi's supermarket was still up in the air because only partial results were available. Three of 26 district tallies were not available because district officials were not sure whether the numbers sent to them were complete.
The Lewiston-Porter Central School District is always a puzzler, with a large group of residents that predictably oppose any type of budget increase.
But their numbers were not enough Tuesday, as voters approved the district's proposed $38.8 million budget by vote of 1,416-684. The margin of victory came despite strong opposition from longtime board member Edward M. Lilly, who was dead-set against the budget's 2.77 percent increase in spending and the property tax rate rising 0.78 percent in Lewiston and falling 1.41 percent in Porter.
Of eight voters questioned as they left the Community Resource Center, where the election was held, five cast their ballots in favor of the budget while three voted against it.
"I always vote for the budget because I want to give our kids a good education," Stewart Blinco said. "My kids all went through the Lewiston-Porter Schools and are gone, so I want the kids there now to get the same education my three boys had. They had a good education. Lew-Port did well by them."
William Leardini called it "a fair, legitimate budget" that addresses the district's current needs and its future needs. "I think [interim School Superintendent] Don Rappold has done an excellent job putting the budget together," he said.
Robert Ward, who recently moved here from North Carolina, voted against it.
"I disliked the budget," he said. "Folks in Western New York can't take any more taxes. They just can't do it. This area is a just a region in chains. Teacher salaries are almost $78,000 to $80,000. Plenty of other municipalities in the country do well with teacher salaries at $50,000 or $60,000. So any spending increase at this point is too much. I never paid attention to school budgets or taxes until I came here."