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Voters in 2 districts get 2nd say on budgets

What classes look like in two school districts in Erie and Niagara counties next fall and how many students will be in them -- will be up to voters Tuesday.

That's when residents in the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District and the Niagara Wheatfield School District vote for a second time on budgets for the coming school year.

The two districts are very different: One is centered in a small, older village on Buffalo's eastern border, the other in a more rural district that includes the fastest-growing town in Niagara County.

But their children have something common: They are going to schools facing difficult times because of budgets.

The original budgets in the two districts were voted down May 15.

Niagara Wheatfield voters said "no" to a 9.9 percent tax increase that was above the district's 7 percent tax cap.

Sloan voters rejected a budget that would have raised taxes 1.25 percent, which was at the tax cap limit for the district.

"You can only raise so much from the taxpayer," Sloan Superintendent James Mazgajewski said.

There's a reason why every one of the 24 school districts statewide that saw budgets defeated last month -- including Cheektowaga-Sloan and Niagara Wheatfield -- are voting again Tuesday.

Last year, 45 budgets in New York State were defeated on the first vote. Of those, 22 districts adopted contingency budgets, and 14 passed on a revote. Nine districts where budgets were defeated on the second vote also went to contingency.

This year, the legislation that required a 60 percent passing vote for budgets raising taxes above the cap also prohibited any tax levy increase on contingency budgets.

The prospect is daunting to administrators.

"If we had to cut another $1.3 million from the budget, there would be no way we could fund all these programs," said Kerin Dumphrey, interim superintendent at Niagara Wheatfield. "There's really no place to go unless you go after class size."

The district has laid out what would happen under a contingency budget: "Class sizes at all levels exceeding 30, devastated athletic program, a bare-bones music program and reduction of kindergarten to half day," according to the district website.

In Cheektowaga-Sloan, another $180,000 would need to be cut.

"I'm not sure exactly where we'll go with that," Mazgajew-ski said. "I don't think there's any interest right now in doing anything with sports; we cut those back drastically last year."

Nineteen of the 24 budgets defeated statewide would have overridden their tax caps.

Does that mean the tax cap worked?

"Only three are proposing budgets that are still over the cap," said Tim Hoefer, the director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. "I call that a lesson learned."

Sloan's Mazgajewski said the tax cap guarantees there will be no large tax increases in his district, because he knows 60 percent of the district's strapped residents will not vote to override a tax cap.

"I hope they'll understand they'll never have a big tax increase again. We never win anything that big," he said, but he added, "We can lose that big."

"What the tax cap forces them to do is live within their means, not to spend beyond what they actually have on that end. It holds districts accountable to the taxpayers," Hoefer said.

Sloan's reconstituted $33.23 million budget cuts $30,000 from the budget that was defeated in May. That was done by using more fund balance.

"There's not much there. We've been rolling over our money every year," Mazgajewski said. "The problem for us will be going forward. You can't catch up with the cap."

The budget represents a 0.66 percent increase in spending from the current budget. The tax levy would be $15.3 million, up 1.05 percent.

The estimated tax rates would be $54.43 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in Cheektowaga, up 57 cents, and $74.96 per $1,000 in West Seneca, up 78 cents. Final tax rates will be set in August.

A second proposition will be on the ballot Tuesday. This one is another revote of a proposition requiring some students to walk to school that was adopted May 15. The first vote was prompted by petitions turned into the district. Residents approved that proposition, which increased the transportation distance limits for kindergarten through eighth grade to half a mile and to one mile for high schoolers.

After the vote, another set of petitions was submitted, and Tuesday's bus proposition would require the district to bus all students, which it does this year.

Eliminating transportation for some students could save about $14,000, but it could also cause congestion around schools, particularly Theodore Roosevelt Elementary on William Street.

Voting in the Cheektowaga-Sloan district will be held from noon to 9 p.m. Tuesday in John F. Kennedy High School, 305 Cayuga Creek Road.

Niagara Wheatfield residents will vote on a $60.5 million budget, which spends 3.83 percent less than this year's budget. The tax levy would be $28.66 million, up 4.89 percent.

Estimated tax rates would be: Niagara homestead, $27.69 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, up $1.29; Wheatfield homestead, $23.42 per $1,000, up $1.09; Lewiston homestead, $19.72 per $1,000, up 69 cents; and Cambria homestead, $16.21 per $1,000, up 75 cents.

Voting will be held from noon to 8 p.m. in the senior high school's Adult Learning Center, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Sanborn.