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NY residents voting on school budgets

Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- New York school districts are proposing an average tax levy increase of 2.8 percent in budgets being voted on, with all but a relative few staying within taxing limits set by the state to virtually assure passage.

Last year, 99 percent of budgets that adhered to the state's tax cap passed on the first try, compared to 60 percent of budgets that tried to exceed the limits. Budget proposals that increase local property taxes above their state-set threshold need a 60 percent supermajority of votes to pass.

The cap formula generally limits tax levy increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, but includes exceptions that can raise the number.

All New York school districts except for the Big Five — New York City, Buffalo, Yonkers, Syracuse and Rochester — are required to put budgets before voters on the third Tuesday of May. Big Five district budgets are part of city budget plans developed by mayors and city councils.

The nearly 700 proposals being voted on Tuesday raise school spending an average of 2.9 percent, compared to 1.5 percent last school year, according to the New York State School Boards Association, which said the increase was largely driven by a hike in contributions to employee retirement systems.

Heading toward the budget vote, taxpayers in the Buffalo suburb of Clarence appeared deeply divided over a proposal to increase the tax levy by 9.8 percent next year, well over the 3.8 percent allowed under the tax cap.

Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks said the reserve funds the district relied on to lower increases in past years have run out and the high-performing district has cut all it can, including 90 positions over the past three years.

But a taxpayers' group saw things differently, posting signs and handing out flyers urging defeat.

"Your property value will go down when hundreds of for sale signs appear as residents decide to leave the community or state," the Clarence Taxpayers group warned.

Niagara Falls' budget proposal included a 3 percent tax increase, the first increase in 20 years, to preserve existing programs, while the Maine-Endwell district in the Southern Tier was among several districts that sought tax increases even while reducing spending from last year.

"Crafting budgets this year was like walking a tightrope," NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy Kremer said. "Move too far in one direction and you cut too deeply into educational programs. Move too far in the other direction and you run the risk of exceeding your tax levy limit."

Statewide, schools have included about $1.3 billion in reserves to lessen staff and program cuts, the NYSSBA said.

Polling place hours on Tuesday vary by school district.