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Erie Niagara voters overwhelmingly approve budgets

School spending plans totaling $2.1 billion in 37 suburban and rural school districts in Erie and Niagara counties overwhelmingly passed Tuesday, while voters swept out several incumbents.

All school budgets in the two counties passed, and, for a second year, nearly all the spending proposals were approved with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Highlights included:

• Three high schools in the Williamsville district will see new turf athletic fields after voters approved $50 million in construction projects. They also ousted two incumbent School Board members and elected three candidates endorsed by the district’s teachers union.

• Teachers in Kenmore-town of Tonawanda helped bring a newcomer to the board, as their endorsed candidate, Andrew S. Gianni, handily defeated incumbent Stephen G. Brooks.

• Voters in Clarence approved a $75 million budget despite an active campaign by a group of residents worried about rising taxes.

• A write-in candidate won a seat in Iroquois after nobody ran on the ballot.

While hot local issues drove up turnout in some districts – including Williamsville and Lancaster – the number of voters across the region remained just a small portion of the population. In tiny North Collins, for example, 157 voted on the $15.5 million budget. In Orchard Park, 1,867 residents cast votes on the district’s $91 million spending plan.

Some local districts have seen voter turnout drop since the enactment of a tax cap in 2012.

“Since the tax cap, it kind of dwindled,” said Cheryl A. Connors, clerk of the Orchard Park School District.

That mirrors a statewide trend. The number of voters casting ballots in the annual May school elections dropped each of the first three years across the state after the tax cap was enacted, according to the New York School Boards Association.

While school budgets in some districts have begun to stabilize, concern over teacher evaluations, state aid cuts, standardized testing and other statewide issues resonated with some candidates and voters.

Wayne Alt was among those concerned about the loss of state aid in recent years as state lawmakers siphoned money away from schools to balance the state budget.

“It’s just sad to see that the state is cutting back on education from what they used to do,” said Alt, a retired teacher who voted in Ken-Ton.

Williamsville

Three candidates endorsed by the Williamsville Teachers Association won seats on the School Board as voters also approved $50 million in school construction projects and a $178 million budget.

Shawn Lemay, Mark Mecca and incumbent Toni Vazquez won seats, ousting two other incumbents, Jay Smith and Michael Littman.

Vazquez credited the support from the teachers and turnout from parents. She has been at the center of board discord during the last year as she publicly supported a call from the teacher’s union to hire independent investigators to look into employee complaints about Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff.

“The teachers came out. The parents came out,” Vazquez said. “The constituency came out and they were just really looking for a change. And we are that.”

The contested election between seven candidates and a proposal to revamp the district’s athletic fields drove up turnout Tuesday; 6,050 people voted on the Williamsville budget, more than twice the number of total voters last year.

The district’s school election turned heated in the final days as the Teachers Association actively worked to push two of the three incumbents from the board. Neighbors of East and North high schools also had hoped to convince residents to turn down a proposal to put athletic lights in at the fields.

Iroquois

Several other incumbents in other districts lost their seats, including Maryvale School Board President Tammy McCarthy, North Tonawanda board member Dorothy Kuebler and Starpoint board member Gregory Saraf.

While incumbents were ousted in some districts, nobody ran for an open seat in Iroquois. By the end of the night, a write-in candidate, Jane Sullivan, had collected 113 votes and won a seat on the School Board. A total of 56 names were submitted by voters.

Sullivan was not present as the ballots were tabulated but accepted the position when Superintendent Douglas Scofield reached her by phone.

Clarence

In Clarence, where lingering concern over school taxes had prompted some residents to campaign against the budget, it wasn’t enough to defeat the district’s $75.4 million proposal. The district’s budget was approved by 58 percent of the voters, the lowest margin of any district in Erie and Niagara counties.

Outside the high school gym’s poll doors, students held placards urging a “Yes” vote before school. Voters talked about their reasons for being for and against the budget.

“The school is what makes the town,” said voter Jennifer Krey. While Krey declined to say who she voted for, she said the message of responsible spending resonated with her. “The budget seems to be rising pretty quickly and the number of students seems to be stagnating or declining,” Krey said, “I would like to see reform going forward.”

West Seneca

Voter interest was strong in West Seneca, where residents overwhelmingly approved a $112.5 million budget proposal that included layoffs.

People coming and going from West Seneca East High School talked of keeping the music program intact and protecting their children’s and grandchildren’s futures when they explained their votes for the $112.5 million budget.

They would rather see buildings close, as one elementary school will in June, than programs cut. In addition to laying off 25 teachers and a school nurse, district leaders expected to have to make some changes to programs next year to make up for lost state aid, declining enrollment and increasing expenses.

“There’s got to be something else they can take away. I just don’t want the kids’ education to suffer,” said Lindalee Mariotti. “We’re falling behind and we can’t afford to lose good educators. It’s crunch time for this country and our kids.”

News Staff Reporters Michelle Kearns, Barbara O’Brien and Joseph Popiolkowski and suburban correspondent John J. Hopkins contributed to this report. email: djgee@buffnews.com