School votes: New high in yes vote share; overall turnout down again

Friday, May 22nd, 2009 at 9:40 am by

Two weeks ago I offered some gloomy speculation about possible outcomes of school budget votes.  I cautioned that I tend to be an eternal pessimist on elections, and noted this disposition has advantages — it’s hard to be disappointed and easy to be pleasantly surprised.

Once again, my hopes have been exceeded.  As previously reported, voters approved 97.3 percent of school budgets on Tuesday, a new record.

The prior record of 95.3 percent was set in 2007, the year of the greatest state aid increase ever. Key to the success this year were district efforts to hold down local tax increases. Despite the weakest state aid increases in six years, districts proposed the lowest average tax increase in seven years.

Tuesday also produced a new record for the percentage of voters casting ballots in favor of their school budgets — 65 percent, up six percentage points from last year.

The old record was 62 percent, set in 2003, the first year that the State Education Department compiled vote counts by district.

I had offered estimates of what might happen to the passage rates if “yes” votes remained stable, but “no” votes increased.  This seemed a plausible outcome given the overall economy and general pessimism of voters reported in public opinion surveys.

What happened?

Statewide, voter turnout declined by 6 percent from a year ago, the fourth straight annual decline. “Yes” votes were roughly stable, increasing by 3 percent – perhaps a bit of a surprise given that the teachers’ union did not run its usual pro-budget television and radio campaign.

“No” votes declined by 18 percent. The drop in negative votes may be unsurprising, given districts’ efforts to hold down tax increases. But voters have ample reasons to be to be worried about their own economic prospects.  Also, in an April Quinnipiac University poll, voters expressed  disapproval of the new state budget by a 60 to 16 percent margin.

Successes in passing budgets were sweeping. Only 17 districts suffered defeats. Nine of ten state regions achieved passage rates above 90 percent. Only the Mohawk Valley fell short, with an 89 percent approval rate.

In two regions, voters approved all proposed budgets. One was Western New York, where despite prolonged economic struggles, voters approved all school budgets for the third year in a row. The other region is a surprise – the Mid Hudson Valley, which had averaged only a 77 percent passage rate over the previous three years, the lowest of any region.

Most regions had increases in “yes” voters.  The areas south and west of Syracuse were exceptions, with declines averaging around 8 percent.

All regions had a fall-off in “no” votes.  In all but one region the declines exceeded 10 percent.  The Mohawk Valley, with only a 1 percent decline in “no” votes, was the exception.  This helps explain why the region had a budget approval rate seven points below any other part of the state.

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