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Tax cap worked; Districts holding down school budgets were rewarded by voters for their efforts

Tuesday gave voters their first chance to weigh the fates of school budgets developed under the state's new tax cap, and the law worked just as intended by lawmakers.

Only four districts in Western New York decided to even try to pass a budget that exceeded the tax cap, and two of those went down to defeat -- sending a clear message of fiscal restraint to school district officials and employees.

This result highlights the value of the tax cap, which was intended to block districts from sharply raising the property tax levy -- the amount to be raised in taxes -- beyond a cap of 2 percent plus certain exemptions and district growth.

The tax cap worked as planned, but it did most of its work before voters went to the polls.

Districts opted to make spending cuts and extracted concessions from employees to keep their tax increases within the state cap.

In Erie and Niagara counties, districts this year proposed average tax levy increases of 2.5 percent, down from an average increase of 3.7 percent last year, according to a Buffalo News analysis.

Districts that presented a budget seeking to raise the property tax levy beyond the cap were taking a risk, because they needed 60 percent of voters to approve the budget instead of the normal 50 percent plus one vote.

Statewide, only 48 of nearly 700 school districts attempted to exceed the tax cap, and 40 percent of those budgets failed to pass, the New York State School Boards Association told The News.

In Western New York, just four districts tried to pass a 2012-13 budget that exceeded the tax cap -- Niagara-Wheatfield, Holland, Bemus Point and Wyoming Central.

Holland and Bemus Point passed, while Niagara-Wheatfield and Wyoming -- which each proposed tax-levy increases of 9.9 percent -- went down to defeat.

Taxes still went up in a number of communities, as school boards wrestled with rising costs for employee benefits and the expiration of federal stimulus funds. But the cap served as a welcome regulator that kept taxes from rising unchecked.

In a related matter, the fiscal challenges facing every district likely explain why so few people wanted to serve on their school board.

School board races were held Tuesday in 37 districts in Erie and Niagara counties. Just 17 had a competitive race, while candidates ran unopposed in 20 districts. And Akron, which had two open seats but only one candidate, had to resort to write-in votes to fill the second seat. Two candidates tied, with 11 votes each, and a run-off election may have to be held.

We can understand why serving on a school board is not the sought-after post it once was. It's a thankless, unpaid job, and members are making tough decisions to close schools, cut programs or lay off teachers.

The tax cap remains in effect for next year, presenting more of these difficult choices to school districts while slowing the increase in the property-tax burden on New York's residents.