Second budget votes are tests of trust

OBSERVER file photo Superintendent David Davison, left, and school board member Steve Cockram have been searching for answers regarding the May budget defeat.

Next week is unprecedented when it comes to voting on school budgets. Four districts in our region — Clymer, Gowanda, Ripley and Westfield Academy and Central Schools — will be holding a second referendum Tuesday on spending plans.

After eight years of what seemed to be cruise control in regard to approving educational budgets, a portion of voters are starting to slam on the brakes. Some of it with good reason, but most residents are victims of their own short-sighted decisions of the past when they considered only the present.

Take Westfield as one example. This district had two options for consolidation in the last decade.

In February 2009, voters rejected a plan to join with Ripley. Less than five years ago — in October 2013 — it turned down an opportunity to partner with Brocton.

What we have there today appears to be dissatisfaction that led to a budget defeat. Earlier this month, board members whittled about $243,000 from the earlier proposal. Even with the cut, it remains a significant increase.

But part of Westfield’s problem, as noted by current school board member Steve Cockram on last Sunday’s Opinion page, are its outdated buildings. In the merger proposal, Brocton was the choice for the high school because of upgrades made at that facility in recent years.

Westfield’s complex still looks like the 1970s, only without the disco.

This week, a letter was distributed and signed by “five proud graduates” supporting the approval of the new budget proposal. Since there are no names attached to it, there also is very little conviction from the phantom five. Almost as troubling is Gowanda. Its rejected plans led to new Superintendent Robert Anderson blaming an anonymous flier critical of the plan and capital project in a state education publication. The flier was only a part of the problem as the school board gave it plenty of credibility after it slashed a controversial capital plan by $10 million to $30 million within a period of a month. Residents had reason to be skeptical.

In the meantime, Ripley seems discontent regarding turbulence over a teacher suspension and a superintendent’s resignation. It was enough to sink the budget by one vote.

Despite being the smallest district in the county, Ripley also is the most progressive. Its tuitioning deal with Chautauqua Lake provides better educational and extracurricular activities for its students from seventh to 12th grades in a state-of-the-art facility near Mayville.

Clymer, on the other hand, deserves chaos after its short-sighted vision of rejecting a consolidation with Panama in December. Its reward? A budget with a tax levy hike of 13 percent that was lowered after last month’s defeat. “I would think a 4.2 percent (tax levy increase) should pass,” Superintendent Ed Bailey said of the new district budget. “We’ll see.”

Budget successes of the past may have led to complacency for many districts. As enrollments have continued to decrease from 2010-11, spending has continued to rise. Here’s a breakdown from 2010-11 to the proposed area plans for next year:

¯ Brocton — $14.5 million to $18.4 million — a 27 percent increase.

¯ Cassadaga Valley — $19.9 million to $22.1 million — an 11 percent increase.

¯ Chautauqua Lake — $19.1 million to $23 million — a 20.4 percent increase.

¯ Dunkirk — $36.3 million to $43.7 million — a 19.5 percent increase.

¯ Forestville — $10.5 million to $12.8 million — a 21.9 percent increase.

¯ Fredonia — $27.4 million to $32.4 million — an 18.2 percent hike.

¯ Gowanda — $26.8 million to $31.4 million — a 17 percent increase.

¯ Pine Valley — $15.1 million to $15.8 million — a 4.6 increase.

¯ Ripley — $8.8 million to $9.2 million — a 4.5 percent increase.

¯ Silver Creek — $20.3 million to $24.5 million — a 20.7 percent increase.

¯ Westfield — $14.9 million to $16.5 million — a 10.7 percent hike.

In terms of dollars, Dunkirk had the largest increase over the last eight years. That does not bode well for its future.

When NRG was operating its electric-generating plant in the city, the district received close to $4 million in revenues. Without those funds, or transition aid from the state, a major gap looms for the north county’s largest district.

Talk about feeling powerless.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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