Important decisions are in the hands of school-district voters across our region today. Strong voter turnout is essential to ensure the wishes of the majority of community members are reflected in the tallies.
School budgets have always had the distinction of being directly in the hands of the public. While municipal budgets are decided by representatives whom we have elected to make decisions, district residents have the opportunity to give the thumb’s up or down on school spending plans.
That is a situation that has sometimes complicated life for school administrators and board members — in a good way, we think. More than any other community leaders, they are forced to pay attention to the concerns of their constituents. They can’t pack their budgets with wish-list items, even those that would enhance education.
The Press-Republican reports every year on the budgets of school districts across Clinton, Essex and Franklin counties. And, throughout the year, we cover the news from these dozens of schools. So we have a fair idea how area schools operate and can say that, for the most part, their leaders and board members are working hard to reconcile the educational needs of students and the financial constraints of taxpayers.
No districts in the North Country have been spared from staff cuts over the past few years, and most have also had to scale back educational or athletic offerings.
Among the assessments that voters will have to make this year is whether they think more cuts need to be made, if schools should hold steady as is or whether some of the previously deleted offerings should be restored.
Complicating the already complicated scenario these past two years is New York state’s 2 percent property-tax cap.
If a school stays within its allowed cap, a simple majority of votes approves the budget. But schools that put up budgets that are higher than their allowed cap need “super-majority” approval from district residents. That means that 60 percent of the voters who turn out today must OK a cap-busting budget.
Only a handful of districts in our area have proposed budgets that exceed their allowed cap. But don’t be surprised to see proposed tax-levy increases of more than 2 percent. Each district has a formula that decides its individual tax cap because some costs are exempted.
The Empire Center for New York State Policy reports that this year, school budgets will be subject to an average tax-levy limit of 4.6 percent. The average limit last year was 3 percent.
The decisions that voters make today will affect their wallets; they will also impact the children who are the future of the North Country. We urge all to vote wisely.