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Back to drawing board for Niagara-Wheatfield budget

by jmaloni
Thu, May 17th 2012 01:20 pm
Richard Sirianni, left, and Steven Sabo won the two open three-year terms on the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education.
Richard Sirianni, left, and Steven Sabo won the two open three-year terms on the Niagara-Wheatfield Board of Education.

 Sabo and Sirianni take board seats

Story and photo by Susan Mikula Campbell

The Niagara-Wheatfield School District's $61.78 million budget for 2012-13 failed Tuesday by a 2,004 (no) to 1,713 (yes) vote in what was described as the largest voter turnout in recent memory.

The defeat may spell the end of N-W's sports and music programs and bring across-the-board increases in class sizes. The Board of Education was to meet Wednesday (after the Tribune went to press) to begin planning what to do next.

For the two open seats on the Board of Education, voters chose Richard Sirianni (2,596 votes) and Steven Sabo (2,225 votes). Incumbent Kristin MacKenzie came in third (1,502 votes) and there were five write-in candidates.

Overall, New York state voters approved 96.4 percent of school district budgets on Tuesday, according to an analysis by the New York State School Boards Association. There was a 99 percent passage rate for districts within the new state tax cap and a 60 percent passage for districts exceeding the cap.

Initial statewide results gathered by NYSSBA indicate voters have passed 651 of 675 school district budgets. The number of budgets defeated was 24.

The failed N-W budget included a 9.9 percent increase in the tax levy, which was over the tax cap. Under the new tax cap law, it would have required a 60 percent voter approval to pass.

In school districts where the budget failed to pass, a second vote may be held on June 19, according to NYSSBA. School boards may forgo a second vote and adopt a contingency budget. Under state law, a contingency budget requires zero percent growth in the district's tax levy.

N-W District Clerk Robin Vertino said the voter turnout was steady all day, and she believes it was the largest turnout she has seen for a budget vote in her 30 years of working on school district elections. Even as officials started to close voting at 9 p.m., two last minute voters came in.

Interim Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey was disappointed in the outcome of the budget vote, but pointed out that 1,700 people still voted to "do what was worthwhile for the community and give it a chance to retain the quality and extent of education we have been used to."

The proposed budget was the district's lowest expense plan in six years, $1.15 million lower than the current year's budget. It already included concessions by district unions and about $4 million in cuts. A contingency budget would require another $2.7 million in cuts.

"Obviously, now we are going to have to start eliminating programs and increasing class size," Dumphrey said.

Sabo, who won a one-year term in last year's election and serves as board president, now will serve a full three-year term. He said he didn't think the board would be able to keep the tax levy increase at zero.

"I would have rather lost the election than have the school budget fail," he said.

Sirianni, a Town of Niagara resident who unsuccessfully ran for a board seat last year, said voters obviously gave the school board a new direction.

"We have some serious problems ahead of us. There's going to be serious decisions ahead," he said.

This is the first year school districts have had to contend with a property tax cap. According to NYSSBA, 623 districts, or 92.8 percent, were at or below their maximum allowable tax levy increases under the cap, and required a simple majority to pass their budgets. Of those districts, 99.2 percent passed.

Forty-eight districts, or 7.2 percent, had budgets that exceeded the tax cap and required a 60 percent "supermajority" to pass. Of those districts, 60.4 percent passed their budgets.

Last year, taxpayers approved 93 percent of school district budgets, NYSSBA reported.

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