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In Clarence, passions still running high over school budget

A few years ago, where to build the next cluster of McMansions might have been the biggest problem facing Clarence.

But this little town on the northern edge of Erie County now finds itself the epicenter of much bigger issues – quality schools, the taxes it takes to run them and the state effort to control property taxes.

Three weeks after the debate over school taxes reached a fever pitch with a record turnout of voters and rejection of a school budget that contained a 9.8 percent tax increase, passions are still hot – and they won't be cooling soon.

Some residents, including many who opposed the original budget proposal, say the district's revamped budget, to be discussed Monday night at a public hearing, is good enough. Others are calling for even more cuts.

“I'm so supportive of the budget because Clarence is fiscally responsible,” said Michael Hilburger, a retiree. “Our taxes are so low. ... All the budget was doing was just catching us up to where we should've been.”

Members of a well-organized anti-tax group that helped defeat the original budget say otherwise – and they've mounted another campaign to try to force changes.

“Nothing is being done to make sure we don't have the same problem next year,” said Lisa Thrun, who leads the group Citizens for Sustainable Schools. “There's still a lot of frustration out there.”

Thrun's group is demanding that the district do more to address structural problems and not just cut programs and teachers.

That is not what you hear in many other school districts, which limp from year to year, trying to pay for escalating expenses fueled by salaries, pensions and health care, and each year look to Albany for more state aid or deplete their reserve funds when state aid doesn't go up.

Rising property taxes driven by school budgets is why Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pushed through the State Legislature a tax cap on school taxes, and a 60 percent voter approval for budgets that exceed the cap, as Clarence proposed. But Clarence's nearly 10 percent tax increase was the largest in the region and created intense debate and voter turnout.

The budget was overwhelmingly defeated, and the turnout of 8,232 voters was significant for a town with 30,631 residents, according to the last Census.

By comparison, the total voter turnout for the City of Buffalo, population 261,310, in the recent hotly contested school board elections was 11,936.

But the state and federal governments pay for about 90 percent of the city's school budget. Not so in suburban communities, like Clarence, where local property owners pay for 60 percent of the school budget.

Thrun and her group have pledged to support the revised budget, which includes an additional $2.4 million in cuts, only if teachers agree to pay for one-third of their health insurance going forward. They also want higher-salaried teachers to retire so that the district can hire younger teachers, and they're pushing the district to open contracts so that parents can volunteer to coach sports teams that have been cut.

“The only way there's going to be a long-term solution is they've got to pay more of their own pensions and more of their own health care,” said Joe Lombardo, another member of the group. “They've really got to get in check with reality.”

Ellie Corcoran, a retired teacher, called the revised budget a “Band-aid fix.”

“That's not what the real problem was,” she said of program costs. “They cut teachers because they can put a guilt trip on us and say, 'See what we had to do. The children are going to suffer.' ”

But a vocal parents group called Keep Clarence Schools Great says it's time to accept the new budget as the best possible compromise.

They say that despite the hype, taxes have never really been that bad in Clarence.

Even if the proposed 9.8 percent tax hike had passed, the district would have had lower school taxes than 21 other districts in Erie County, based on taxes for a house of the same market value in each community, according to a Buffalo News analysis.

But school taxes in Clarence have gone down just once in the past decade, according to annual budget information available through the state Education Department.

The total amount the district collected in taxes dropped 4.8 percent from 2007-08 to 2008-09, state records show. But that drop followed two consecutive years of 8.4 percent tax increases.

“I pay less school tax than any of my friends in comparable houses in Western New York,” said Hilburger, the retiree whose three sons attended Clarence. “People don't realize that. I don't have a lot of money, and I don't like to pay school taxes. We are as low as it gets, and I believe we need to support education.”

Since 2003-04, the earliest year for which information is readily available, the total that the Clarence schools collected in taxes each year increased 27 percent, the seventh-lowest increase in Erie County.

During the same period, district spending increased 45 percent – the fourth-highest increase in the county – and student enrollment in Clarence remained about the same.

Now the Keep Clarence Schools Great group points to the 29 additional positions that have been cut from the budget, including teachers and support staff such as guidance counselors and social workers.

“I thought I was mentally prepared, but when I went to that meeting and I saw that my son, who struggled a little bit in school, his favorite teacher is getting cut, who inspired him greatly, you can't help but be filled with emotion,” said Jan Vesper-Diver, a 1985 graduate.

“It's devastating for our children,” she added. “We can't go backwards.”

Clarence's popular sports programs have also taken a hit, with nine modified and four freshman sports teams set to be axed if the new budget is approved.

Fliers put out by the group urge voters to “protect our investment” and home values by approving the budget.

It's unclear whether the demands of the anti-tax group will make a difference.

Teachers union president Elizabeth Dunne wrote in an email that teachers have already restructured their contract. She also pointed out that more than 60 staffers have been cut over the past two years.

Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks said the district has been “in conversation” with the union, and Dunne said all parties must “overcome our differences and work together to find a solution to the very real and very serious issues facing our district.”

But the parents who support the budget say the teachers shouldn't be made into scapegoats for a complex problem.

“Our teachers aren't greedy,” said Katrina Webster, a parent of two Clarence children. “They're coming in early, they're staying after school to help kids, they work through their lunch hours, they're on committees. ... Why are they not worthy?”

Thousands of dollars have been spent on flashy mailers and large billboards, some of which were defaced before the election.

Pro-budget groups suspect the mailers were funded by a national conservative group that Thrun is a member of, while she denies the claim and says all the money raised for the flier was local.

The anti-budget group, meanwhile, says mailers on the other side carried an Albany postmark and were likely sent by the teachers union.

Whatever their belief, those in the town say it's been nearly impossible not to get swept up in all the budget debate.

“It was a nice, sleepy town,” said Corcoran, the retired teacher. “I don't think a lot of people were involved before.”

But as resident Jim Murphy put it, “when you start hitting people's pocketbooks pretty hard, they sit up and notice.”

Murphy said the anti-tax group is “pretty split” on whether to vote no again, and the parents group appears to have been more vocal and organized in recent days.

So it's anyone's guess what will happen at 7 p.m. Monday night in the high school lecture hall, when the public registers its first official comment on the new plan, and on June 18, when voters return to the polls in Clarence and six other districts.

News Staff Reporter Mary Pasciak contributed to this report. email: and