Stephen T. Watson

This year’s school elections were delayed and then shifted entirely to voting by mail thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which also shut down schools here and across the country.

District officials worried this new method of balloting – coupled with coronavirus-fueled economic concerns – could lead to more budgets falling to defeat.

Their fears appear unfounded.

With vote counting still taking place in some districts in Erie and Niagara counties Wednesday afternoon, all but one of the districts that had finished counting and reported results saw their budgets pass. Only the Cheektowaga Central School District’s $47.2 million budget, which raised spending by 3%, narrowly was rejected.

Why are voters – including thousands who hadn’t voted in previous school elections – willing to approve budgets that raised spending and school taxes during a recession.

District officials say they believe they were able to stay connected with voters at a time when buildings remain closed and to make the case that they are spending taxpayer money prudently.

“There was a lot of outreach from school districts,” said David Lowrey, executive director of the Erie County School Boards Association and a member of the Iroquois School Board.

Most, if not all, local budgets would keep tax increases under the state tax cap. This has led to the higher rate of budget approvals statewide that continued this year, but a possible financial reckoning looms.

Now that districts have made it through this extended, unprecedented election process, they await details on possible coronavirus-related state budget cuts and guidance on how to reopen schools.

“Everybody’s in a tough spot,” said West Seneca Superintendent Matthew J. Bystrak.

School districts scrambled to mail ballots to every eligible voter at the direction of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who sought to limit the spread of Covid-19. With the ease of voting by mail, many more district residents returned ballots than typically vote in person on school election day.

This left district officials wondering whether this new, larger pool of voters would vote to approve their budgets – particularly at a time when many people here have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts.

“This year, with so many more ballots returned, we weren’t sure what to expect,” Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony Day said, noting turnout increased from an average of 850 to 1,000 to 4,030 this year.

The 37 districts in Erie and Niagara counties had proposed 2020-21 school budgets totaling $2.4 billion that guide spending on everything from teachers to textbooks. All but six of the 37 budgets would raise spending and all but two would raise the tax levy, the amount the district collects in property taxes.

With schools closed since March, districts sought to maintain their ties to students and their families and remind residents of the value they provide the community.

“It always comes down to good communication,” said Springville-Griffith Institute Superintendent Kimberly Moritz, who noted the district’s work to serve meals to 950 children each day.

District officials also sought to make their standard case that most spending is devoted to employee salaries, benefits and pensions and is not something that can be reduced if the budget is voted down.

“They’re not going to be eliminated if a budget doesn’t pass – they’re contractual,” said Bystrak, who didn’t expect to learn West Seneca’s results until Thursday.

School budgets in Erie and Niagara counties are passing at their usual high rate so far. With 25 of 37 districts reporting, only Cheektowaga has failed, and that was by just 49 votes out of more than 2,100 cast.

Cheektowaga Superintendent Mary A. Morris declined comment until after meeting with her School Board on Wednesday night.

For most districts, the approval rate was comparable to the in-person rate from previous years, even though the process to get there was far more complicated.

“Nothing has worked the way it’s supposed to, and so this whole atmosphere of ambiguity makes everything more difficult,” Day said.

Most districts in Erie County opted to take their paper ballots to the county Board of Elections offices downtown for tabulating on a high-speed scanner.

Some school officials said the machines had trouble reading the ballots and the vote-counting process took longer than expected. Some districts that hoped to get results Tuesday night left and came back Wednesday morning.

Republican Elections Commissioner Ralph Mohr said the machine didn’t break, but it slowed down as it struggled to accept different paper stock used by the various districts for their ballots.

“We had the thing set for the paper we use,” Mohr said, who also pointed to the large volume of paper ballots the board was trying to process.

A number of the largest districts in Erie County still hadn’t gotten results as of mid-afternoon Wednesday and vote counting likely will run into Thursday.

It’s rare for school budgets to fail and, statewide, 98% of budgets passed last year. Few districts want to take the risk of exceeding the state tax cap, and lower tax increases has led to more budgets getting passed.

This year, the budgets put to voters by school districts largely assumed state aid would hold steady.

They put off the deeper cuts that would be required if federal aid doesn’t make up for the coronavirus-driven budget gap the state is facing, said Ken Girardin, an analyst with the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank in Albany.

“Unfortunately, these budgets were likely based on unrealistic school aid figures, meaning it was easier for voters to approve them than it would have been if districts had set their levies higher,” said Girardin. He published a study earlier this month showing that districts in New York plan to raise spending by 1.8% for 2020-21, continuing the state’s No. 1 ranking for spending per student on K-12 education.

Districts had hoped to hear more than a month ago whether they would see the 20% state aid cut that Cuomo warned would come if federal relief didn’t come to New York, but they’re still waiting.

West Seneca could see initiatives to lower class sizes at elementary schools, distribute more laptops and tablets to students and boost staff professional development scaled back for lack of funding.

In Springville, this amounts to a $2.8 million cut to the district’s $42.5 million budget and could mean the loss of 28 positions, Moritz said.

“I’m anxious to know,” said the superintendent, who doesn’t want employees left uncertain about their futures.

On top of the budget uncertainty, districts don’t know when or in what form schools will reopen for the new school year given the need to keep children and staff safe.

© 2020 The Buffalo News

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