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Editorial: Taxpayers have plenty of reasons to vote in school elections

Editorial: Taxpayers have plenty of reasons to vote in school elections

School budgets, school board votes have large financial, community impact
Editorial: Taxpayers have plenty of reasons to vote in school elections
Niskayuna residents turn out for a school budget vote in 2013.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

Correction: A previous version of this editorial named the wrong precent of the population that votes on school budgets, which is 3.7 percent.

Ahh, School Vote Day.

A day when less than 4 percent of the population turns out to vote on a budget that determines 60 percent of their property tax bill.

Those voters get to decide on a budget that sets the parameters for what educational, social and extracurricular programs local school districts offer to our children; determines the number of children in classrooms; sets the size of the faculty and administration; and establishes whether school buildings get repairs and upgrades. 

Voters also vote to elect school board members who have the authority not only to formulate the annual budget and set the local tax rate, but who have decision-making power over everything from hiring the superintendent to negotiating teacher contracts to setting student dress codes.

In just 38 area school districts, voters today will decide on more than $2.2 billion in school spending that will require local taxpayers to fork over $1.1 billion in property taxes this coming year.

There’s a whole lot going on today at the ballot box. And unlike in past years, where all school budgets either dropped, leveled off or inched up slightly, the region is seeing the highest average tax levy increase in five years.

Each district is different, but the spending trend is evident. And in some districts that are keeping a lid on the tax levy, the trade-off is that they may be forced to sacrifice staff positions and programs.

Yet except in cases where there’s a controversial issue on the ballot or an unusually high tax hike, voter participation in school votes is often even more anemic than it is for the general election.

Out of around 15 million eligible voters in New York state, only about 557,600 people voted in school elections last year — about 3.7 percent.

That means 96.3 percent of the eligible voters, those 18 and older, didn’t bother to vote.

In some districts and regions of the state, turnout is often low. On Long Island last May, for example, less than 9 percent of eligible voters showed up to vote.

Experts cite the tax cap as one reason why voters have become complacent. But the cap is a double-edged sword.

Yes, relatively low annual tax hikes tend to remove the incentive for many people to vote. Voter turnout when budgets rose annually 5 to 10 percent or more was a lot higher.

But the tax cap has also forced districts to be more selective with their spending, which means budgets aren’t only about dollars, but about the quality of the education that districts can provide with limited tax increases.

Your taxes might not go up much this year, but your school district might be slashing a dozen teachers and cutting out remedial instruction for struggling children to hold the line on spending.

Your vote can help decide whether that’s the right course of action.

And as districts have been struggling to find money to fund all their programs, some are inching up those tax increases. So if you’re not paying attention to your local school budget, you could be getting hit with a higher tax increase than you’ve been experiencing lately.

That’s why even in these days of tighter budgets, your vote still matters.

Given that about 60 percent of your local property tax bill is dedicated to school spending, you might want to lend your voice to how that money is allocated.

We understand that voting in school elections is sometimes inconvenient. Often, voting hours are more limited than during the general election and there are fewer places to vote.

But this annual vote is important to your community, its children and your own personal finances.

If you care about any of that, you’ll make the effort to learn about your local school budget and take the time to vote today.

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