Decision Day: Voters Get Say on School Spending, Taxes

It's decision day across New York.

Voters are casting their ballots on everything from taxes to school budgets. But before the polls even opened, officials predicted the state's budget impasse could have a major impact on the results.

"I think parents are worried about perpetual tax increases one year to the next," said Westchester parent Lee Mingione. "One might wonder in 10 years whether they're going to have enough money to pay the increases on top of the increases."

Some parents say they're willing to pay more taxes to provide children optimal education, which includes extracurricular activities.

In New Rochelle, the school district took the unusual step of promising not to cut sports or arts programs, but the board still slashed 78 teachers and raised taxes. One top district official justified the cuts by saying they're the crux of a responsible budget.
"The fact that state aid went down $5 million is a huge reason for the tax increase and we kept the tax increase as low as we could," said Sara Richmond, New Rochelle School Board President.

Similar choices are on tap in dozens of New York school districts.

The decisions were so unappetizing to New Jersey voters a few weeks ago that more than half the school districts flatly rejected budget proposals. That's one reason Gov. David Paterson said people are going to be surprised when the public -- not the governor or the legislature -- votes down a lot of those plans.

Consider a homeowner who already shells out $11,000 per year in property taxes. Those annual payments could jump by another $800, and at least one Mount Vernon resident said if that happened, he'd just have to move out of town. 

Such ultimatums are a sign of the times for voters in New York districts. There's no choice between layoffs and tax increases. Whether the budget actually passes or boards implement contingency plans, area residents are likely to see both their taxes go up and district budgets get squeezed. 

Paterson believes New Yorkers will vote "No" to paying higher property taxes to support school spending levels. Counties across the state present plans to raise taxes today. For instance, in Bronxville, the proposed school budget is more than $43 million dollars, and in Harrison it's more than $101 million.

Ordinarily, voters pass more than 90 percent of the State's school board budgets, but Paterson administration insiders anticipate the number will be far fewer this year -- echoing what happened in New Jersey last month. But Paterson said the revolt could finally force lawmakers to wake up and deal with the late state budget.

Some school advocates fear dire straits could get worse if voters reject the budgets, however. If the proposals get shot down, many programs at the schools will be hurt, opponents say, and they will take time to be reintroduced to the school systems even if the economy bounces back.

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