It all paid off on Tuesday when school district voters chose board members as they also passed judgment on budget proposals. A good law, hard decisions and wise voters came together to produce a generally satisfying array of results.
The fundamental thing that occurred was that voters supported students even when they were, in some way, dissatisfied with the district. That is, they distinguished between the budget, which supports students and education, and the board members who voted on those budgets.
Across Erie and Niagara counties, voters in 37 suburban and rural school districts overwhelmingly approved spending plans but also sent several incumbents packing. That demonstrates a real comprehension of voters’ appropriate role in the process: Blame the adults, but don’t penalize the students.
It helped – tremendously – that voters were generally presented with responsible budgets, each of whose development was guided in part by the state tax cap, meant to protect taxpayers from large increases in what are already the nation’s highest education costs.
The tax cap is not easy for any taxing entity to contend with, especially school districts, but the state’s spendthrift history, its unfriendly-to-taxpayers labor laws and its burdensome property taxes made it important to enact. This year, Western New York school boards worked hard to live within its requirement, and it paid off at the polls. That’s become simultaneously a more difficult and more important task for school boards as enrollments decline.
Easily the most interesting – and potentially disruptive – results came in Lancaster, where voters did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Voters there supported students by overwhelmingly passing the budget, a bus proposition and a $57.3 million capital project while also voting out two incumbents, apparently because those members had voted to change the district’s Redskins nickname, increasingly seen as racist. That board did right in making the change, but many voters remained unhappy.
To be sure, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. There were real fears that anger over the board’s decision would lead to defeat of the budget and capital spending plans. But, as in other districts, voters directed their frustration appropriately, even if the frustration is ill-considered.
Now Lancaster students, teachers, administrators, parents and taxpayers have to hope for two things: one, that the new members know something more about running a school district than just supporting a worn-out nickname; and, two, that tempers cool before future elections give like-minded candidates the ability to reverse the seven-member board’s unanimous decision to change that nickname.
Education is about the students, and so adults need to take note: Whatever warm feelings they may hold about the Redskins name, it was already harming students through the divisiveness it caused in the district and through the honorable decision of other schools not to compete with Lancaster because of the racist nature of the team nickname. Words really do matter.
The board made a wise and ultimately inevitable decision when it voted to change the nickname. It would be a terrible decision to subject students and the district to the same fight all over again, with the certainty that, at some point, it would once again be reversed.