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Voters send a message Rejection of Niagara Wheatfield budget will force board to make tough choices

Now is not a good time to be a school board member, administrator, teacher or parent in the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District. Whatever decisions are made about the budget for 2012-13, they are going to create controversy.

The district unwisely attempted to ask fed-up voters there to shatter the state-imposed tax cap and approve a budget on May 15 that would have raised the property tax levy by 9.9 percent. Any objective observer could have predicted that request was bound to fail. Its ultimate defeat, 1,713 to 2,004 in a record voter turnout, suggests that the School Board is clearly out of touch with the public it's supposed to represent.

To the board, the argument for a 9.9 percent increase seemed logical. The proposed $61.7 million budget actually represented a spending decrease from the current year, and the lowest budget the district had adopted in six years.

So why, then, was the district trying to push through a nearly 10 percent tax increase when overall spending was going down? Because the district imprudently spent down its reserve accounts to nothing over a five-year period instead of making harder choices early on to spare the district the type of calamity it faces now. District spending was allowed to grow through 2010-2011 instead of taking a longer-term approach to proper fiscal management.

Even if the district thought that overriding the cap was imperative to safeguarding school programs, it was foolish to think it could exceed the state-imposed cap — 5.6 percent in the district — by such a large margin.

Now the district is being forced to put a new budget before voters that falls within the tax cap limit of 5.6 percent. The board is in a tough spot. But the members must realize that every percentage point increase to the tax levy also increases the risk that the budget will again fail to get voter approval. A second budget vote failure would be catastrophic to the district and the nearly 4,000 students it serves, since the district would not be allowed to raise the tax levy at all.

The School Board has to proceed with care in crafting a new budget. Board members have to think long term and make the hard choices they failed to make in the past. We hope they don't underestimate the taxpaying public this time around. No one can afford that.