And there was harmony – or, at least, something close to it – Tuesday as voters approved all 37 school budgets in Erie and Niagara counties, nearly all receiving more than 60 percent of the vote.
This is good news after the rancor of just a few years ago in the wake of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s controversial 2 percent property tax cap. Back then opponents feared that the tax cap would fracture communities and spark “undemocratic minority rule.”
Instead, districts and residents seem to have adjusted to the new reality. All but one district – Holland – remained under the tax cap, and for that accomplishment their residents may get to pocket what amounts to loose change in the form of small rebate checks, courtesy of the governor in an election year.
The desire to remain under the cap – which often exceeds 2 percent after a number of exemptions are figured in – and qualify for the rebates probably added some pressure on school districts to control costs, with districts in some cases cutting staff and popular programs.
Some of the budgets passed by staggering margins. The Williamsville Central budget posted the highest approval in the two counties, 82.4 percent. In Niagara County, Barker Central’s approval rate was 82.2 percent.
Statewide, more than 98 percent of school budgets passed. With a few districts still to report, voters defeated only 11 budgets while approving 652, according to the School Boards Association.
Association Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said, “Low tax levy increases buoyed by a healthy state aid increase in many districts helped drive success at the polls.”
Across the region, spending plans for the 2014-15 school year will be increasing property tax revenue by an average of 2.47 percent. Even Clarence, riled last year by the ultimately failed attempt to raise taxes nearly 10 percent, saw its $72.6 million budget approved easily. The district raised taxes to the cap this time.
Holland stood out as the only school district to propose a budget exceeding the tax cap. The district cut spending 2 percent, but still needed a 2.5 percent tax increase to prevent deeper program cuts. Voters agreed, and the budget received the supermajority it needed to pass.
Some districts, like Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, Hamburg and Lackawanna, had higher turnouts than others, and not just because of budgets.
Hamburg is a remarkable example of voters showing up at the polls to help control a fire that had broken out on the School Board.
The soap-operatic drama that has played out all year between factions both on the board and in the community has put Hamburg in a bad spotlight. The hope is that the re-election of one incumbent and the election of a new member will help mend a fractured community.
A calmer situation in Hamburg would be a bonus for an election day of generally positive results for Buffalo Niagara school districts and taxpayers.