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Suburban voters head out to the polls across Erie and Niagara counties

At gyms and auditoriums across the region Tuesday, suburban residents were heading to the polls to cast their votes on their school district’s budgets, candidates for school board and propositions ranging from approval to buy buses to nonbinding proposals to offer tax exemptions to wartime veterans. Elections were underway in 37 districts in Erie and Niagara counties.

In Orchard Park, where afternoon turnout was below last year’s level, people seemed most concerned about getting teachers to pay for some of their health insurance costs.

“I feel it’s time,” said Martha Cipriani, owner of a head-hunting company, as she walked into Orchard Park High School to vote Tuesday afternoon. “As a business owner, my employees have to pay some of their health insurance.”

She intended to vote for the budget and the two incumbent board members, Donna Omar and Elizabeth Quinlan.

Orchard Park, with a $91.4 million proposed spending plan up 2.56 percent, has stayed within the tax cap for the last few years.

People seem less interested in voting now, said Cheryl Connors, clerk for the school district.

By 3 p.m., 750 people had voted. By the same time last year, it was closer to 1,000. Before the cap, elections routinely drew 3,000, Connors said.

“Since the tax cap, it kind of dwindled,” she said.

One voter stopped to talk to about how the candidates seemed to all have some kind of teaching background, either currently working as teachers or having worked for schools in the past.

“When things get tough and there’s an issue, are these candidates going to be objective about whatever that is?” said Bob Bickel, who retired as associate superintendent of Orchard Park schools in 1988. 

Even so, he said he would vote for the budget and the incumbents because of their experience. “I’m committed to the schools,” he said.

Donna Omar, an incumbent board member who owns a fitness company and is a former art teacher, spent most of the day standing by her parked SUV, talking with people.

Many, like Cipriani, asked her about having teachers contribute to their health insurance plans. “That’s what I’ve been hearing the most,” said Omar, who is on the board’s contract negotiating team. “All the other district employees are contributing.”

One of the three candidates challenging the incumbents also was standing by her car and talking to voters.

Karen Kane, who teaches English as a Second Language at Buffalo School 45, joined the race out of concern for state testing, among other things.

The scores are being used inappropriately to rate teachers, she said. “They are not designed to evaluate teachers,” she said. “I just think school boards can be one more place to take a proactive approach against some of this stuff.”

Voter interest was strong in West Seneca.

By 1 p.m., turnout was 30 percent higher than at the same point a year ago – 819 compared to 619.

People coming and going from West Seneca East High School talked of keeping the music program intact and protecting their children’s and grandchildren’s futures when they explained their votes for the $112.5 million budget.

They would rather see buildings close, as one elementary school will in June, than programs cut.

“There’s got to be something else they can take away. I just don’t want the kids’ education to suffer,” said Lindalee Mariotti. Her daughter’s experience with marching band led her to choose a music cognition program for college in the fall. “We’re falling behind and we can’t afford to lose good educators. It’s crunch time for this country and our kids.”

The West Seneca budget, up 3.37 percent, pays for 6,700 students in two high schools, two middle schools and five elementary schools. Parents and grandparents who spoke informally during voting Tuesday said they appreciated the district’s recent efforts at cost-cutting, like closing Potters Road Elementary School at the end of this school year.

“I think the board’s done pretty good,” said Don Frei, as he stepped out into the afternoon sunshine. He voted for the budget and the incumbent board members.

“Costs always go up,” he said. “As long as it doesn’t get crazy.”

All four candidates lined up on the high school parking lot to chat with voters. Incumbents Gwendolyn Phillips and Mary Busse talked together about the threat of 40 to 50 layoffs and program cuts if the budget does not pass. “There’s no other issue for us,” Phillips said.

One of her challengers, standing a car length away, said he supported the budget, too. “If the budget fails, it hurts the kids most of all,” said Ed Bedient.

He wanted more money spent on programs and less on buildings. Rodney Montgomery, campaigning next to him, was advocating for more transparency. Too much is decided by administrators and board members without enough public discussion. “I think it’s just wrong,” he said.

Some voters said they were most concerned about keeping music and band intact.

“Because our grandchildren take music in the school,” said Joan Pitiss’ as she waited in the car. Difficulty walking kept her from going inside to vote, but she “encouraged” her husband to vote.

“We want to make sure they keep taking those things,” she said of her four grandchildren’s musical interests.

At Clarence High School Tuesday, voter numbers were up slightly over last year. By 10 a.m., 715 cast ballots for the controversial $75 million budget and two contested seats on the board. By that time last year, it was 640.

Outside the high school gym’s poll doors, students held placards urging a “Yes” vote before school. Voters talked about their reasons for being for and against the 3.86 percent spending increase and the candidates on either side of the issue.

Jennifer Krey said she and her husband were worried about the constantly increasing school budgets. While they send their young children to Catholic school, the reputation of Clarence schools led them to buy a house in the community.

“The school is what makes the town,” she said as she held her infant daughter. While she declined to say who she voted for, she said the message of responsible spending resonated with her.

“The budget seems to be rising pretty quickly and the number of students seems to be stagnating or declining,” she said, “I would like to see reform going forward.”

Candidates Jacob Kersiek and Joseph Lombardo called for spending reform. Incumbent Michael Fuchs and his partner candidate Dennis Priore urged a yes-vote on the budget that will add teachers.

For Krista Belling, the proposed budget would help improve the schools. She wore a Priore button and credited the Clarence system for her daughter’s full scholarship to a West Coast engineering school. Students will benefit from this budget. “Their future is our future,” she said, standing in the parking lot, where a cluster of people handed out yes-vote campaign postcards. Her passion led her to advocate for her point of view on the budget-opposing candidate Facebook pages.

“I could throw my hands up,” she said. “I strongly believe in education.”

West Seneca was reporting higher voter turnout than last year, with 819 votes cast by 1 p.m., up from 619 last year.