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Stakes are high in Niagara Wheatfield vote; Failure to pass school budget a second time could mean additional job loss, other cuts

Year-end goodbyes are taking on new meaning in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District.

While high schoolers get ready for final exams this week and seniors graduate next week, some employees are preparing for their final days with the district.

At least 62 job cuts have been made so far, and there could be more pink slips handed out, depending on the outcome of the budget revote June 19.

"It really is up to the voters on the budget we proposed," interim Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey said.

After voters last month rejected the first budget, which lowered spending but would have raised taxes 9.9 percent, the School Board decided to hold another vote. This budget of $60.5 million has more cuts in spending and would increase the tax levy by 4.89 percent.

That is below the district's tax cap of 5.6 percent, so a simple majority is needed for passage. The first budget attracted a large voter turnout last month but fell far short of the 60 percent needed for passage.

District administrators and parents are hopeful. But some residents say the first vote was a message, one that must be heard.

"At some point you have to say enough is enough. I think nationally and statewide and locally for the last 10 years, that's what people have really been saying," said resident Gary Bauer.

He voted against the first budget, and he thinks a 4.9 percent increase in taxes is still too much. He said he thinks the School Board should be putting up a budget with a 2 percent increase.

"I think the board's mistake was going to 9.9 out of the box, not explaining the cost properly in a way that people could relate to," Bauer said.

Of the 48 budgets statewide that exceeded the tax cap this year, 29, or 60.4 percent, gained approval. Niagara Wheatfield's was one of 19 budgets exceeding the tax cap that was defeated statewide. Also included in that group is Wyoming Central, which is going for a revote. Cheektowaga Sloan District voters, who defeated a budget that did not exceed the cap, also will be voting again on a budget June 19.

Last year, 45 budgets in New York State were defeated on the first vote. Of those, 22 districts adopted contingency budgets, and 14 passed on a revote. Nine districts where budgets were defeated on the second vote also went to contingency.

But this year, districts are in uncharted territory, dealing with limitations put on budgets through the tax cap law. If budgets are defeated in two public votes, the district must adopt a contingency budget, and the tax levy cannot increase.

If that happens in Niagara Wheatfield, another $1.3 million must be cut.

That would mean class sizes increasing to more than 30 at every level, elimination of prekindergarten and drastic cuts to music and sports programs, administrators said.

"There's not many options left," Dumphrey said. "There would be no way we could fund all these programs."

The district now has cut $5.3 million from what is being spent this year. The average tax bill will be lower than what residents were paying six years ago, the superintendent said.

Parent Gina Terbot thinks some people voted against the budget last month because it is the only municipal budget in which they have a say.

"I think some voted no because it's the only time they can," she said. "This is the one place they can be heard, and they want to be heard."

It has been relatively quiet in school circles since the first vote. About 30 people attended a public hearing on the new budget, one of the lowest turnouts since the budget process began five months ago.

That's a little worrisome to administrators. But it has been a marathon budget year for all.

"This is wearing on some of the people," Dumphrey said. "I certainly hope the people are aware of this issue and turn out on June 19."

Bauer also thinks that residents are becoming weary.

"I don't want to see voters take their anger out on the kids. I don't think anybody wants to see that," he said.

Traffic on the Facebook page for the Concerned Parents Council for Niagara Wheatfield Schools also was down after the first vote. Terbot, one of the administrators of the page, said she believes people were reserving their comments until they knew more of the details. She also said many parents have become busy with spring activities.

"I think a lot of parents didn't think their vote mattered last time. I think a lot of parents just didn't vote," Terbot said.

Supporters of the budget will be delivering fliers to homes next week. They hope to reach people who did not vote in May.

Meanwhile, district administrators will continue preparing termination notices.

"It's heart-rending to tell all these people they're losing their jobs. It's a shame to lose their talent," Dumphrey said.