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Residents have a chance to weigh in on school budgets, board members

Now it’s everyone else’s turn. Buffalo voters elected members of their School Board earlier this month and, today, voters elsewhere in Western New York will do the same and more, passing judgment on proposed budgets for their school districts.

Few decisions can have a greater impact, not simply on the lives of voters, but of their children. Everyone who is eligible should take the time to meet what is both a civic obligation and a pressing matter of self-interest.

In some ways, this year’s elections appear, at least on their face, to carry little controversy. State aid to education was dramatically increased in the state budget passed April 1. The gap elimination adjustment – a money-saving response to the Great Recession that benefited the state’s bottom line at the expense of school districts – has been itself eliminated.

What is more, the ability of school districts to raise taxes cavalierly has been admirably restrained by the state tax cap, which generally forbids tax increases of more than 2 percent or the rate of inflation – whichever is less – without approval by a 60 percent supermajority of voters. Such attempts are rare, in good part because they run a greater risk of rejection. As it happens, no school district in Erie or Niagara County is proposing to break the tax cap.

Nevertheless, there are important issues for voters to consider, especially as they apply to school board members. Which ones are working diligently to prepare district students for the future and which are doing less than should be expected? Do they support the Common Core learning standards? What is their commitment to a challenging education? Whose side are they on?

As was demonstrated again in the May 3 vote in Buffalo, turnout is traditionally low in school district elections. Some of this is because of timing – American voters are trained to focus on elections in the fall, not in the spring.

It’s a defect in the system that puts the well-being of New York’s millions of schoolchildren in the hands of a comparatively few adults, and it’s something that should be fixed by moving the election date. The state could also profitably abandon its odd system of public voting on school budgets and, instead, vest authority in the elected board, just as it does with the budgets of villages, towns, cities and counties.

Until then, though, voters have an obligation today to make informed decisions that are likely to influence the kinds of lives their children will lead. It will be a good use of their time.