by Susan Mikula Campbell
Niagara-Wheatfield's voters nearly evenly split on Tuesday defeating the proposed $62.7 million school budget 1,601 to 1,598.
Just four more voters in favor of the school budget would have made the difference. A total of 3,290 voters cast ballots, described by officials as "a good turnout."
N-W wasn't alone. Budgets in the nearby Lewiston-Porter and Wilson school districts also went down to defeat.
In the board of education race, Lori Pittman (1,876 votes) and Amy Deull (1,807 votes) defeated Lorna Tilley-Peltier (1,357 votes).
"I'm speechless," said Board President Steven Sabo after the budget numbers were read.
Sabo said his board now has three choices: offer the same budget again, offer the budget with some changes or go to a budget with no increase that would mean no music, no sports and possibly no kindergarten.
Sabo said he personally would recommend the first option to the board at its Wednesday, May 22, meeting (after the Tribune went to press). He said the school district already has pretty much maxed out increasing class sizes, and further cuts will affect all grades and all buildings.
New York state voters approved 95.5 percent of school district budgets on Tuesday, according to an early analysis Wednesday by the New York State School Boards Association. There was a 98 percent passage rate for school districts within the tax cap; a 30 percent passage rate for districts exceeding cap. Schools statewide proposed an average tax levy increase of 2.8 percent for 2013-14, according to NYSSBA. Niagara-Wheatfield was asking for a 5.91 percent tax levy increase, but it was within its state cap limit.
Pittman, a Town of Niagara resident, will begin her term on June 30. A nurse manager in the intensive care unit at Mount St. Mary's Hospital and Health Center, she is the mother of three N-W grads and one current 10th-grader. A former N-W board member, she returned to fill a vacancy last November.
"You say 'tighten the belt,' I don't know where that's going to come from," said Pittman, a longtime proponent of the district's music program. "I think we have a lot of difficulty ahead of us."
Deull, a Wheatfield resident, will begin her three-year term on July 1. The co-founder of the Niagara County Patriots, she had been at the high school polling place all day, but wasn't inside the Adult Learning Center when the final numbers were announced. She had emphasized during her campaign that she was interested in sound financial management to ensure best educational opportunities for students within available funds.
"Students, parents, school employees, and taxpayers are all partners in this effort and must all be respected. We can't solve problems by throwing money at them," she said.
District Clerk Robin Vertino, a veteran of N-W elections, said in the past the majority of budgets won voter approval. Last year, the $61.78 million budget, which was over the tax cap and required a 60 percent super majority, was defeated by 292 votes. The board reduced that budget to $60.5 million, which passed. The 2004 budget would have needed 32 votes to pass, but was rejected by voters. The board put up the same budget for a second vote and it passed, she said.
In other election matters, the proposition allowing a student to serve on the board of education as an ex officio, non-voting member passed 1,855 to 1,107.