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In the tax cap era, more school budgets pass while fewer people vote

School officials often grumble about the tax cap and unfunded mandates, but since the cap was enacted, more budgets are being approved.

And fewer people are voting.

The number of residents voting on school budgets has gone down by more than a third in Erie and Niagara counties in the last seven years.

Many point to a cap imposed in 2012 on the amount that school districts can increase taxes each year as the reason more budgets have passed while interest in voting has waned. Last year, 99 percent of school budgets in New York State passed.

"It has almost been automatic," said Bruce Fraser, director of the Erie County School Boards Association. "If the budget is below the rate of inflation, the rate of passing budgets has gone up."

In 2011, 60,420 people voted on school budgets in 37 suburban and small city school districts in Erie and Niagara counties. Last year, that number had fallen to 39,707.

"If there's not controversy in the district, you can almost count that turnout has fallen," Fraser said.

On Tuesday, school districts will find out if the trend will continue.

That's the day residents in more than 650 school districts throughout the state vote on school budgets and elect members to School Boards.

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Residents in 2011 came out to vote on budgets that cut dozens of teachers and other staff, resulting in bigger class sizes and fewer programs. That's how districts dealt with a $1.3 billion reduction in state aid because of the recession, coupled with increased costs for pensions and health care. But by last year, state aid had been restored and districts started adding back staff and programs.

Not surprisingly, fewer people are coming out to vote against a budget: The number of people voting no in the two counties fell by 56 percent, while the number of people voting yes dropped by 21 percent over the seven-year period.

"It may just be that people are happy with the budgets proposed. If they weren't, we'd know about it," said Dave Albert, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association.

Two local districts – Lake Shore and Eden – face a higher hurdle to get a budget passed this year after proposing spending plans that go over the state-imposed tax cap. They will need 60 percent of voters to approve their budgets instead of a simple majority.

"The more people who come out, the higher our success rate is," Eden Superintendent Sandra Anzalone said. "We really do want people to come out and vote."

In Eden, the increase in the tax levy allowed under the cap is 0.46 percent, or about an additional $66,000 in property taxes. The district is proposing a 2 percent increase in the levy.

Lake Shore Central has a tax cap of negative 1.4 percent. That means collecting 1.4 percent less in taxes for the budget to pass with a simple majority, and collecting less would mean more cuts. The district's proposal is for a 1.5 percent increase.

"We hope our community understands. We understand dollars are tight," Superintendent James Przepasniak said, adding staying within the tax cap would affect program and staffing, where the district was hoping to restore some items that had been cut during the recession.

North Collins, a small district with about 580 students, had the fewest people coming out to vote in the two counties last year, when 152 people voted on the budget and two incumbents were unopposed. Voters passed the budget last year, 76 percent to 24 percent.

"I can't assume anything," Superintendent Scott Taylor said. "The year before that we had double that."

There were 504 voting on the budget in 2011, when there were four candidates running for three seats on the School Board.

It's not just fewer voters. This year two local districts don't have enough candidates. There are two openings on the North Collins School Board, but only one candidate is running. In Akron, there are three seats but only two candidates.

Albert said about 60 percent of board seats across the state are uncontested. In contrast, the mid-Hudson Valley area has almost two candidates for every open seat.

Races are contested in 30 percent of the districts in Erie and Niagara counties.

One of them is in Cleveland Hill, where there is a contest for the board for the first time in several years. Budgets have always been below the tax cap, and voters sometimes become apathetic. Last year, 288 residents voted on the budget.

"When things go good, our board rooms are, unfortunately, near empty," Superintendent Jon MacSwan said. "In years with significant cuts, there was a lot more turnout."

Meanwhile, in Eden, one of the reasons the tax levy would go up is to add a school resource officer and a social worker, as well as an app that will allow parents to track where their child's bus is located, the superintendent said.

Parents have told district officials that there are too many activities scheduled away from the district on school election day, so every athletic competition that day is taking place at home, she said. The honors breakfast that parents attend with children also is taking place that day, so parents will have another opportunity to vote.

"We're hoping that will help," Anzalone said.

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