Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tax Levies and Voter Turnout

In the days before this year’s school budget vote, reporters all over the state kept asking, “What impact did the tax cap have on this year’s budget proposals?”  After the vote was over and 96.5% of the budgets in the state had passed, including 99% of the budgets that were at or below their permissible levy limit, reporters then asked, “Did the tax cap affect this year’s vote?”

Now that the data is in, it is possible that one of the ways the cap affected the vote was quite different from what state leaders anticipated.  Looking at Monroe County, it appears that the introduction of the cap resulted in many people deciding not to vote. 

Slightly over 3,000 fewer people voted here this year compared to last.  But it isn’t just that fewer people voted; it is notable which voters chose not to.  Many fewer “no” voters went to the polls. There were 2,130 fewer “no” votes compared with last year; 70.1% of the votes cast were affirmative votes.  Is this a coincidence or something else?

In 2003 over 50,500 people voted on our member districts’ budgets, very much in contrast to this year’s 29,169 voters.  A review of that decade’s statistics reveals a steady reduction in voter turnout even though the plurality of “yes” votes has remained relatively constant.  Over the ten years the plurality of “yes” votes has fallen below 60% (58% in 2010) only once and climbed into the 70% range twice (75.6% in 2009, 70.1% in 2012). In the remaining seven years “yes” votes averaged 64% of the votes cast.  There have been only 4 defeated school budgets over this time period out of 180 separate district budget votes. 

What is the relationship between strong support for education yet eroding voter turnout?  One explanation is that discontent is more motivating than satisfaction. In our region “no” voters have to be aware that, given the infrequency of failed budgets, they are mainly voting to make a statement.  If they are not compelled to make a statement and so don’t vote, turnout will be affected and that certainly seems to have happened in Monroe County this year.

One can surmise that many “no” voters stayed home this year because they believe the state’s cap on school tax levy increases addressed their oft-articulated concerns.   But with the cap just in its first year, what explains the previous years of falling voter turnout?  Perhaps the trend can be explained by looking at what voters were voting on.

In the first four years of this time period, when voter turnouts still averaged over 48,000 people, proposed levy increases averaged over 4.5% per year.  Voter turnout was falling during this period but only slightly. 

Then in 2007 the proposed levy increase dropped to 2.75% and voter turnout dropped 28%!  In the years since then both the number of voters and the size of the levy increase have closely correlated, with voter turnouts dropping almost every year the levy increase was small.  

The one exception to this trend was in 2010, the year state aid was deeply cut after being frozen the year before.  Schools were forced to make major budget cuts and countywide the proposed levy increases averaged only .09%.  Voter turnout jumped by 32% that year, probably to make a statement to Albany.  But that year was atypical in many ways.  Voter turnout fell again the next year, dropping by 21%. 

Of course, at the district level there are exceptions to these generalizations. Strongly contested school board races bring out more voters, as was the case in the only two local districts that had more voters this year than last.  Hot local issues can also increase turnout. 

Nevertheless, at least here in Monroe County, the trend is clear.  Lower increases in the tax levy mean successively fewer people are likely to come to the polls, and the ones that do will be predominantly “yes” voters.  Unless another issue motivates voters, the tax cap may unintentionally promote lower voter turnout

Friday, May 11, 2012

May 15 - School Vote Day

Tuesday, May 15th, is the annual school budget vote and school board election day.  New York is one of only a few states that require citizen approval for each year’s school budget. 

Why vote?  First and foremost, this is how your local school district finalizes its budget.  No other level of government depends on this form of public involvement.  You can’t vote on your town, county, or state budgets.  But when it comes to the education of children, the entire community has the unique opportunity to have a say on the direction of their district’s future.

To put this year’s budget together, local school leaders have had to deal with fundamental changes in how state aid is allocated, with the new tax cap law, with specific budget items like health care and pensions where the obligatory costs rise far faster than inflation, and with planning for expensive new operating and curricular initiatives mandated by new state laws.  They have had to decide to draw down their reserve funds to maintain their priorities.  The goal has been to develop budgets that will continue to provide high quality programs and services despite the problems created by multiple years of frozen and reduced state revenues.

Sadly, despite all this hard work, many people question the value of voting, or just ignore it. But the results from the ballot box drive numerous subsequent events. 

The annual vote lets you help shape your district’s future for years to come because this is when school board members are elected for all suburban, rural, and small city school districts.  These unpaid volunteers establish district policies, hire the superintendent, and oversee the finances.  The board sets the expectations for the operation of the entire organization, determines the quality of the programs provided to the district’s students, and, ultimately, affects whether the community is regarded as a desirable place to live  Board members devote hundreds of hours a year to their duties. 

Many school board races are contested this year.  If you are concerned about your district’s future, become informed about who is running and what they believe in, and then vote.  

The budget vote also influences how state leaders assess peoples’ attitudes towards public education.  Our Albany representatives regularly have to make choices between competing needs.  Legislators will look at school budget votes to learn what thousands of voters in their own communities are thinking.  A large affirmative turnout makes a strong statement to state representatives about what their constituents’ value. 

So May 15th is approaching and the school board has done the best they can.  Now they need the community to do their part and vote.   

Sometimes budgets fail because a community opposes the proposal. Then the board must make changes in response to the community’s message. But it is an outrage if a budget fails because not enough people bothered to vote.  And the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is for each citizen to take the time to vote. 

If you forgot to read the district budget newsletter and already recycled it, the information it contained is still readily available.  Your district’s website has budget, candidate, and poll location information.  So does your public library.  You can link to your district website from our own MCSBA website,, by clicking on Member Districts. 

In a democracy, the people who show up to vote get to make the decisions.  Be a part of making good decisions for your school and your community.  Vote on May 15!

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Some facts about the budgets here in Monroe County districts:

School board members are taxpayers, too, and since long before the tax cap law they have been striving to ease the burden on local taxpayers. 

The four-year average of the annual increase in the tax levy for our 18 suburban and rural member districts is 1.91% per year.

The four-year average of the annual budget growth for our 18 suburban and rural member districts is 1.6% per year.

All of the districts have proposed tax levy changes lower than or equal to the permissible limit on the increase in the property tax levy as calculated by the new tax cap law. 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Schools Partner with Towns and Community Groups

People are often unaware of how much their school district operations are interwoven with the quality of life for the entire community.  In addition to the classroom experiences, extracurricular activities, and athletics everyone associates with public schools, school districts build liaisons and partnerships with their towns and community groups in a wide variety of ways. By collaborating with one another, their town governments, cultural institutions and other groups, Monroe County school districts offer a wide range of specialized programs to meet the needs of their students.  Here are some examples; others can be found in our Best For Less Publication

Local Rotary clubs collaborate with school districts to bring high school students from around the globe to attend high school in Monroe County. This famous international exchange program helps local students learn about the world from their peers in other countries and gives them an opportunity to be an ambassador for their nation.

The annual Senior Transition Day in the Wheatland-Chili High School provides students an opportunity to learn from community members who help them explore everything from apartment renting, insurance selection, ballroom dancing, cooking, college life, car repair, and more.

The Family Support Center in the Spencerport District’s Administration Building is a collaboration of the District and the Town of Ogden. The Center offers free counseling services for children and families, as well as community-wide educational programs and support groups for parents. The Center also includes a resource library and information on local social service and mental health resources.  Several other districts also maintain family support centers. 

Continuing education programs for adults are offered by many school districts in Monroe County.  One example is the Greece Central School District Office of Community Education.  Greece’s program serves thousands of adult learners every year. More than 450 people participate in adult literacy programs learning subjects from adult basic education to citizenship. The district also offers a variety of workforce development programs for adults.  People looking to change careers or improve their skills can enroll in career certificate classes in the areas of office technology, customer service and sales, custodial maintenance and repair, and pharmacy technician.

The Rush-Henrietta Cooperative Wetlands Education Program is a cooperative venture of the Rush-Henrietta School District and its community. Educational signs as well as instructional programs inform visitors about the features and value of this wetlands environment.
The Gates Chili Central School District also hosts a similar nature trail on the property of its Neil Armstrong School, and West Irondequoit’s Helmer Nature Center has been providing a wide range of learning programs including classes in awareness, animal habitats, snowshoeing, Native American culture, pioneer living, outdoor cooking, and more since 1973. 
Many Monroe County school districts collaborate with civic groups like the YMCA to provide before and/or after school child care in school facilities.  One example is West Irondequoit’s K-6 Extension Program offered through the district’s Community Education Department.  The morning program begins at 7 AM; the afternoon program runs until 6 PM.  Children are provided with appropriate snacks, exercise, time for homework and reading, and enrichment activities.
Coping Power is an after school program in some Rochester schools.  This program for pre-adolescents is coordinated by a group of pediatricians and helps students learn strategies for reducing aggressive behavior, improving social competence, and increasing problem-solving abilities. 

The Brighton Food Cupboard is a program of the Brighton Central School District with the Jewish Community Federation, Foodlink, and other community organizations and volunteers.  Working through local social service case managers, the cupboard provides a means to prevent and reduce hunger and food insecurity for individuals and families living in Brighton and surrounding communities.