School budget votes — reason for worry?

Monday, May 11th, 2009 at 1:51 pm by

The property tax report cards filed by school districts last month show tax increases in proposed budgets averaging 2.1 percent, down from 3.7 percent a year ago.*  This decline has led some observers to predict another good year for school budget votes.

I’m not so sure.

With elections, I choose to be an “eternal pessimist.”  The outlook has its benefits — I am seldom disappointed and often pleasantly surprised.

So, even though school budgets have passed at rates averaging close to 90 percent over the past six years, I worry about the outcome even under promising circumstances.  But I do see more reasons than usual for concern this year, even with the decline in proposed tax increases.

More than most elections, school votes are influenced by turnout, and statewide turnout in school elections has dropped every year since 2003, the year that the State Education Department first began reporting actual vote counts by districts.

Total turnout has declined by 19 percent since 2003.  “Yes” votes have fallen more than “no” votes — 22 percent versus 14 percent.  But high budget passage rates have continued because the drop in yes votes started from a higher base.  Sixty-two percent of school voters supported their district budgets in 2003; 59 percent did so last May.

In 2007, school budgets achieved a record passage rate of 95.3 percent (The State Education Department has published results going back as far as 1969).  That outcome was not the result of a surge of favorable votes, however.  The yes turnout dropped by roughly 66,000 votes, but no votes declined by roughly 100,000 (24 percent) from the year before.

Nearly all the drop in no votes on school budgets over the past six years occurred in just that one year — 2007.  That was the year the Foundation Aid formula was enacted, along with a record $1.76 billion overall School Aid increase.  The sense was that the big state aid increase helped moderate local tax increases and that gave skeptical voters fewer reasons to show up and vote against their school budgets.

This year’s drop in proposed tax increases might be expected to depress the participation of hostile voters again.  But the general political and economic atmosphere is negative in many ways now.  Surveys reveal voter worries about their own economic prospects and and disapproval of many elected officials.

School budget elections are one immediate outlet for voters to vent their general frustrations.

Last year, 92 percent of school budgets passed.  But a shift in turnout could could drop the pass rate by 10 or 20 percentage points.

If the turnout of yes voters remains at 2008 levels, but no votes rise back up to 2006 levels, the pass rate would drop to 73 percent.  That would require an unprecedented 30 percent surge in no votes.  A 16 percent jump in no votes — as happened in 2005 — would result in a pass rate around 85 percent.

Both scenarios assume no change in the number of yes votes compared to May 2008.  Any fall-off would result in still lower passage rates.

Watching the steady erosion of yes votes, especially upstate, I have worried what would happen if events ever caused a surge in hostile voters.  Pro-school budget forces in some regions may be out of practice in turning out heir supporters.  Also, in this cycle they are more on their own in whatever efforts they do make.

It appears that the teachers union, New York State United Teachers, will not run its usual pro-budget TV and radio ads.  In some districts, local unions are opposing school budgets because of planned layoffs.

Again, when it comes to elections, I’ve been the eternal pessimist over the years and have been pleasantly surprised by the voters’ judgments more often than I’ve been disappointed.

Let’s hope that is the case again next Tuesday.

*The average increase in local tax levies in proposed school budgets for 2009-10 is 2.1 percent, if the figure is calculated by summing budgeted and proposed tax levies for all districts and computing the percentage change between the two annual totals.

Some reports have placed the average at 1.9 percent.  That figure is the result if the percentage changes in tax levy proposed by all districts are averaged together.

The first method gives more weight to districts with larger budgets and tax levies; the second method weights all districts the same regardless of size.

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