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Editorial: Tax cap has reduced the need for voting on school budgets

It’s time to rethink the need for New Yorkers to vote on their school budgets. The practice has never made much sense, but in light of the state tax cap, it has lost whatever justification anyone ever imagined.

In last week’s voting, in which school district residents voted on budgets and board members, turnout was worse than abysmal. That’s both the bad news and the good: Turnout is down as voters understand that the threat to their bank accounts has diminished. The tax cap implemented by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the State Legislature has relieved some of the worries that, in the past, may have driven voters to the polls.

The bad news is that declining numbers of voters are bothering to make their voices heard on who serves on school boards. That leaves the field largely to the activists, which for the most part means advocates for the teachers unions that have been fielding candidates – and winning elections. That causes its own problems.

Start with the budget vote, itself. The school budget is the only public operating plan that is subject to referendum. In Albany, in counties and in municipalities, voters elect representatives authorized to negotiate a budget for that government. If voters become dissatisfied, they can elect new representatives, but they don’t pass direct judgment on the budget, itself.

It would be a disastrous practice for all layers of government to put their budgets before voters. To be responsible, voters would have to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of a half-dozen budgets. It would demand an unreasonable level of voter expertise, which is why that authority is typically vested in an elected board, which typically hires officers with appropriate backgrounds.

That’s what should happen with school budgets. Instead, voters are asked to pass judgment on a document most will never even see, let alone review. If they reject the budget, the same plan or a revised one may be submitted for a second vote, with all the same problems. Typically, those few budgets that fail are approved on a second vote, but if not, the district must adopt a contingency budget in which the tax levy remains unchanged from the previous year.

But if that contingency budget were a responsible one to begin with, then the wrong people are serving on the school board. That’s where voters need to direct their energy: on the people who create the budget, not the budget, itself. Give them the authority, let them do their jobs, then review their performance at the next election.

That was always the better way to manage schools, but is especially so given the influence of the state tax cap, which generally allows a maximum 2 percent increase in the tax levy, unless voters approve by a supermajority. In Western New York last week, the only three budgets seeking to break the tax cap were overwhelmingly approved, while all the others also passed. So, in addition to being unwise, the vote was unnecessary.

The issue of low voter turnout has other causes, and prominent among them is the date of the vote. The only reason for voting to take place in May is to try to drain party politics out of the process, but the consequences are low-turnout elections, which hand over too much influence to teachers unions, which were remarkably successful last week in getting their candidates elected.

Those votes should be moved to the general election date in November. The risk of politicization can be moderated and is worth the prospect of greater voter participation in school board elections.

In addition to approving all Western New York budgets last week, voters extended their healthy willingness to elect young people to their school boards. With the election in Orchard Park of Dwight Eagan, a 20-year-old University at Buffalo legal studies major, area school districts now include at least five members who are no older than Eagan, and one as young as 18.

It’s an encouraging sign of interest by able and engaged young people and the voters who express confidence in them. By definition, those inexperienced board members will have a lot to learn about leading so large and influential an institution, but their interest will pay long-term dividends.

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