Voter Turnout Plummeted For Nys School Board Elections

06.06.14 | Sarah Harnisch

School budgets are being passed on the first try more than ever in New York. But there’s another trend: turnout at the polls is plunging.

Turnout for school-budget votes in May has dropped 34 percent since 2010 and 19 percent since the state enacted a property-tax cap in 2011, a review by the state Association of School Business Officials shows.

The tax cap has forced schools to keep property taxes relatively low each year, schools officials said. As a result, fewer voters are protesting, leading to lower turnout, the officials surmised.

The total turnout dropped from 981,681 in 2010 to 647,335 this year, the group said.

At the vote May 20, a record 98 percent of nearly 700 school budgets passed. Additionally this year, homeowners will get a rebate check if their districts stay within the tax cap.

“I think that voters recognize with the pressure that the cap creates on school districts, the vast majority of schools are going to come in under the cap,” said David Albert, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association. “So our experience has been that when voters are happy with the tax rate, you didn’t see a large turnout.”

Schools statewide this year proposed an average tax levy increase of 1.98 percent, the lowest in five years, according to the School Boards Association. Spending is expected to increase 2.6 percent compared to 2.9 percent in the current school year, which ends June 30.

Budgets failed in 12 schools districts last month. A second vote is June 17.

Districts can seek a 60 percent vote at the polls to override the tax cap. The tax cap this year, because of a lower inflation rate, is 1.46 percent. It's the first year the cap has been lower than 2 percent. Each district’s cap is a different percentage, based on a number of factor, such as the growth in pension costs.

Overall, 23 districts sought an override this year. Of the 12 budgets that failed, nine were unsuccessful in seeking overrides – including Dover in Dutchess County and West Irondequoit in Monroe County.

Michael Borges, executive director of the Association of School Business Officials, said six out of 10 schools that sought an override were successful. That compares to 25 percent that were successful last year.

“School districts are getting better at working with their communities to get budgets passed and avoid contingency budgets," he said.

For the second vote, districts face a tough choice. If they seek an override again and fail, the law prohibits them from enacting any tax levy increase for the fiscal year.

So for the upcoming second vote, five districts are again seeking overrides – four with the same levy increase and one with a lesser increase.

Dover is seeking approval for a budget that stays under the tax cap, while West Irondequoit is seeking the same tax increase as in the first vote, the School Boards Association said.

The 60 percent vote needed to override the cap is the subject of a lawsuit by the New York State United Teachers union. The union claims the 60 percent supermajority requirement is unconstitutional. The case is pending.

Borges pointed out that in eight of the nine failed tax cap overrides, the districts got the 50 percent simple majority for passage, but failed to get to 60 percent.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has hailed the tax cap as a way to control some of the highest property taxes in the nation. School taxes represent about 60 percent of a homeowner’s annual property-tax bill.

Property taxes had an average growth of 5.3 percent between 2004 and 2010, but the average since the cap has been about 2.5 percent, Cuomo said an end-of-year report in December.

“As a result of the property tax cap fought for by the governor, property taxes are no longer growing at exorbitant rates,” Cuomo’s report said.