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Voter turnout at issue for fall school votes

Voters in school districts across the state have had their say on school spending on the third Tuesday in May for fifteen years.

When it comes to large school construction projects, however, the polls can open any time of year.

Residents in Sweet Home Central School District on Tuesday will weigh in on $18.7 million in school upgrades that include everything from new roofs to better security.

In East Aurora earlier this month, a $7.8 million package of school projects narrowly passed by two votes.

School leaders say the votes were scheduled this fall to allow the districts to obtain state approvals in time to start construction when school lets out next summer. But some question why the districts don’t hold them in May, when voters have become accustomed to thinking about school spending.

“You mean to tell me that when they sent their annual operating budget to the general public in May, that they didn’t know that they needed $7.8 million?” asked Craig Thrasher, a resident in the East Aurora school district who opposed the recent school construction referendum there.

While critics contend capital improvement votes are sometimes held separately from school board elections in an effort to discourage those who oppose a school budget from voting, meager turnout can also work against a district.

East Aurora school leaders believe low voter turnout was a factor in the near defeat of a capital improvement referendum Oct. 8 that passed by a 216-214 vote. A typical school vote can draw three times that many residents, said East Aurora School Superintendent Brian Russ.

“When there’s a vote that’s not connected to the general budget vote, there’s always the risk of having a lower turnout,” Russ said.

In Sweet Home, school officials have been meeting with parent-teacher organizations and other community groups to explain the school projects included in the referendum. Sweet Home has also posted video of an informational meeting on the referendum on the district’s website. Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, in the Norman C. Vergils Center of Sweet Home High School, 1901 Sweet Home Road in Amherst.

“We’ve been doing an awful lot trying to publicize the project,” said Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony Day. “We’ll see next Tuesday about turnout.”

Sweet Home will ask residents to vote on two propositions on Tuesday. Proposition No. 1 is for $16.8 million in projects, including new roofs at the high school and Glendale and Maplemere elementary schools, as well as work to reconfigure parking lots, refinish gym floors, install new fire alarm and clock systems and upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Work will also include security upgrades to school entrances.

“It’s all about safeguarding the investment in the district, safeguarding kids,” Day said.

A second proposition will ask voters if they want the district to spend $1.9 million to build a new multi-sport complex.

The decision to hold the vote in October was about “mapping backwards” to be able to start the projects when students are out of session, Day said. The district has held public referendum votes separate from the May school board elections six times since 1991.

“While they’re not quite as robust as our budget referendum, they’re healthy in comparison,” Day said of off-season school votes. “We think we get a representative sample, no different than what we get for a budget referendum.”

Since 1998, state law has required school districts to hold annual school board elections on the same day in May. But special elections on specific projects that require voter approval can still be held other times of the year.

Votes held apart from annual school board elections aren’t necessarily overlooked by voters. A proposition to close Alden Primary School held in March drew a record number of voters who opposed the idea. The proposition failed, 1,772 to 241.

In East Aurora, the district is moving forward with plans to start construction in July on projects that include roofing, masonry, security and technology upgrades throughout the district, as well as a new stadium scoreboard and a sound system for the high school auditorium.

Thrasher, who urged community members to vote against the referendum, said district leaders shouldn’t view the project’s narrow passage as a victory. He contends the district did not give voters enough detailed information about the projects and is concerned about the costs.

“It didn’t win,” Thrasher said. “It was an amazing show that people are sick and tired of this expenditure.”

Russ said the East Aurora school district follows a five-year plan for facilities.

“We keep a very close eye on it and we meet regularly to review the needs of facilities, in terms of making sure that we keep things in good working order,” Russ said. “Because if you allow them to go for too long, then it really becomes problematic.”