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Cap played pivotal role in approval of budgets
Districts that exceeded limit more likely to fail

School districts locally and across the state learned an important lesson Tuesday: While staying under the tax cap almost guarantees budget success, trying to go beyond it leads to a good chance for defeat.

Statewide, only 48 of the state's nearly 700 districts attempted to exceed the newly imposed tax cap. Of those, 60 percent succeeded, according to the New York State School Boards Association.

Those districts unable to pierce the cap are expected to return to voters June 19 with revised budgets they believe the public will be more likely to support.

"If you stay within a reasonable level, people will support that," said Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "If you try to go above that, you may have your head shot off. But I want to point out that more than half that tried go past the cap got their budgets passed."

The local results roughly mirrored the state results: Of the four school districts in the region that asked voters to override the state tax cap for next year's budget, two were successful and two were not.

Holland and Bemus Point saw 67 percent and 66 percent of their voters, respectively, support their proposed budgets for 2012-13. Those percentages exceeded the 60 percent "supermajority" threshold needed to override the state-imposed property tax limits.

But in the districts of Wyoming and Niagara Wheatfield, the attempt to override the state cap failed by huge margins. In fact, those districts were unable to manage even simple majority support for their budgets.

Fear of that kind of outcome is why only 7 percent of all state school districts attempted to override state thresholds.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the property tax cap has clearly "changed the dialogue" on how to address growing education costs.

"We changed it from automatic tax increases to maybe we have to find some economies of scale and maybe we have to reduce spending," he said.

Overall, voters approved 96.4 percent of the state's school budgets, according to the school boards association. And districts that stayed at or under the state-imposed tax cap saw more than 99 percent of their budgets approved.

The Cheektowaga-Sloan district was a notable exception. Its budget failed by 31 votes Tuesday, even though the district presented a budget that adhered to the state's cap of a 1.25 percent budget increase.

Both the Wyoming and Niagara Wheatfield districts attempted to pass budgets that asked voters for a 9.9 percent tax levy increase.

"We knew it was going to be a challenge," said Wyoming Superintendent Sandra Duckworth, whose district has a tax cap limit of 2.46 percent.

Hits in federal and state aid hurt the small district of 170 students and threaten academic programs, she said. Despite extra efforts to educate the community about the need for a greater tax levy to support the $4.97 million budget, she said, only 36 percent of voters approved it.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," Duckworth said. "That 9.9 percent, while it was high, was going to slow down the use of reserves and help build the base."

In Niagara Wheatfield, voters shot down the budget with 1,713 voting yes and 2,004 voting no -- an approval percentage of only 46 percent. That $61.7 million budget now goes back to the school board for retooling.

Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey said he was disappointed with the results, but that the number of people who headed to the polls shows many residents were invested in the school budget vote.

"Some years they don't even reach 800, so this was a massive turnout," he said after Tuesday night's vote.

Even though the district presented a budget that would have reduced spending by 1.8 percent, the tax levy -- the total amount of money the district collects in property taxes -- would have risen well above the tax cap of 5.6 percent.

The board now has to talk about cutting deeper into programs, further increasing class sizes and offering fewer enrichment and athletic programs.

"There's certainly a long ways to go," Dumphrey said.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Superintendents Association, said unique local circumstances often contribute to a budget being defeated.

In Niagara Wheatfield, for instance, some vocal residents have accused the district of past fiscal mismanagement that resulted in the decimation of the district's reserves and its current financial bind.

In any event, Lowry and Kremer said they expect most districts where budgets were defeated to bring back revised budgets June 19 that fall within the state tax-cap limit.

"It's kind of like double-or-nothing if you try to present a budget above the limits when the voters have already told you no," Lowry said.

Presenting a revised budget with more cost reductions is the only smart thing left to do to avoid voter backlash, agreed Kremer.

"It shows that you're listening to them, that you're responsive to the voters," he said.

Duckworth, whose board is meeting today, said a revised budget is Wyoming's only option; otherwise, it would have to settle for a contingency budget that would allow no increase in the tax levy.

"Contingency budgets will just kill a district," she said.

The two school districts in the region that were successful in overriding the state's tax cap put forth more modest spending proposals.

Holland, for instance, sought a $17 million budget that increased the tax levy by only 2 percent. It required an override because, based on the state tax-cap formula, the district's tax cap was set at a mere 0.42 percent increase.

Spending in the Holland district would actually fall 5.6 percent in the 2012-13 budget.

In the 790-student Bemus Point school district in Chautauqua County, the district was looking at a tax cap of 1.74 percent. The School Board had intended to adopt a budget that would modestly override the cap, but it found a groundswell of support from community members who wanted a greater spending increase, said Superintendent Jacqueline Latshaw.

"We had about 60 people who came to two School Board meetings in a row," she said.

Bemus Point has had the second-lowest tax rate in the county and a strong record of student achievement, Latshaw said. High elementary class sizes also were ringing alarm bells for district parents, who didn't want that to get worse, she said.

The fact that every employee in the district, from cleaners up through the superintendent, agreed to no wage increases of any kind also may have swayed voters, she said, as well as that the district made cuts in other areas.

Kremer, of the school boards association, said the budgets that came before voters Tuesday offered no new programs or services. Instead, they held the line or cut programs in the face of lower state and federal aid and the tax-cap formula.

Those budgets will likely again be the norm as districts look to budget planning for 2013-14.

Tom Precious of The News Albany Bureau contributed to this report.