On Tuesday, voters in the five school districts along the Mohawk River in Montgomery County and three around the Great Sacandaga Lake in Fulton County will head to the polls for that yearly exercise of approving a budget and picking school board members.
School district elections have become somewhat a farce as of late, as few people even run for boards of education. In Broadalbin-Perth, there's one seat available and one person seeking it. It's worse in Fonda-Fultonville, where there are two seats up for grabs but only one candidate.
The spending plans voters are asked to consider are largely not controlled by taxpayers. More than two-thirds of school budgets can't be changed because of unfunded state mandates and employee contracts. School districts, for the most part, have been putting forward proposals that are at or near contingency levels, so if a plan is voted down, boards will adopt budgets that pretty much mirror the ones on the ballot.
Even worse, school boards also have the power to approve the same plan rejected by voters. We've seen that before. It's as if the election doesn't matter.
It's not surprising most voters stay home during school elections. However, this should not be the case. Apathy earns no scholarship. Your vote is important.
While most of the budgets on the ballots don't carry whopping tax increases or massive spending cuts, it's important for voters to consider the future of their schools.
While the Greater Amsterdam School District was able to craft a plan that doesn't increase spending all that much and carries no tax levy increase, much of that was due to an unexpected increase in funding from the state. What happens if that money isn't available next year?
Broadalbin-Perth has been able to maintain and even add programs, but the majority of that has been through its foundation and grants. Again, those aren't bottomless wells, and the cash could dry up.
Fonda-Fultonville is in a more precarious position. Residents are facing a bare-bones budget that still carries an 8 percent tax increase. The district faced a similar situation this year, and the school board had to make an additional $500,000 in cuts in the middle of it just to stay afloat. How much longer before the fiscal bubble truly bursts?
Out west, residents in the newly merged Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville district will be approving their first-ever budget, which will set the tone for years to come. The district stands to gain millions through merger incentive aid, but it should be cautious with how it spends it. Broadalbin-Perth enjoyed a period of fiscal stability while the money poured in, but eventually the aid stopped, and the district struggled with budgets with massive tax increases several years in a row.
To the north, Mayfield and Northville tried to combine before that idea was shot down by voters, although there is an effort to consider a merger again. Meanwhile, the separate school districts continue to struggle to keep their heads above water. The Canajoharie and Fort Plain budgets largely hold the line, but will that continue down the road?
We acknowledge that residents are damned if they do cast votes on Tuesday and are damned if they don't. However, we believe greater participation in these votes will in turn engage the public more, meaning more meaningful changes can happen in our schools down the road. We also hope it encourages more people to run for the school board next year and beyond.
If you haven't already, make sure you get a copy of your school's proposed budget and get familiar with it. And make sure you vote on Tuesday. The future of our schools is at stake, and sometimes even the smallest voices can make the biggest impact.