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Political issues may bring school board elections, budget votes more attention

New York School Boards Association survey shows 30% of board members are stepping down.

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. — Come next Tuesday voters outside the City of Buffalo can vote on school board candidates and district budgets. Most budgets are expected to pass as they usually do. But there could be more of a voter focus on some candidates.

When it comes to school budgets around Western New York and the state, it's expected nearly 100% will get the greenlight next Tuesday from the voters who choose to show up and say yes or no for districts which did get extra funding.

"The amount of money we collect from the taxpayers as taxes hasn't gone up that much because there is a large infusion of state money and also federal stimulus money," said New York School Boards Association Executive Director Robert Schneider.

So 2 On Your Side asked - could school property taxes ever go down?

Schneider replied, "One: we are in this inflationary timeframe. So as consumers, we see increases in heating, our gas bills —  at the pump. Think about that to run a school district. You have to heat all these rooms in the building. You have to fuel all these buses. Then second, we have a lot of students that have a learning loss from the pandemic. We've gotta get them back up to speed. School districts have to have summer programs. They have to do high dosage tutoring."

School Boards Association Legal Counsel Jay Worona adds, "We truly believe that our democracy is directly linked to the education that we are providing for our children."

Of course school board members and administrators they hire make up the budgets. And some members will be up for election as well with perhaps more openings on school boards than ever before based on a survey sent out to the state's 731 districts. 

"About 30% of our members said that you know threats could be a reason for them not to run again, right? They weren't saying they were threatened - they were saying that what they're seeing could actually de-motivate them to stay on the school board," Worona said.

Jonathan Rich is one of the leaders of the Western New York Students First group made up of parents. He speaks of their purpose.

"Our goal with board of education elections is to get more people to run, teach them how to run, teach them what's involved and then get more people to vote and that's gonna increase the trust," Rich said.

But last year disagreements and lack of trust spurred many parents, taxpayers, and the general public to pack or seemingly disrupt school board meetings here and around the country. And sometimes there were protests or worse including threats regarding COVID topics like masking, vaccines and other policies. Also elements like critical race theory even influenced the governor's race in Virginia. 

"I think that in Virginia polling showed that education was actually the number one issue," Rich said. "And so I'm glad that in New York it's also getting a lot of attention. I personally feel that our organization does want to maintain a balance."

Rich acknowledges that people accuse his group, which supports candidates in several districts, of being political and mention their involvement in a masking lawsuit. He says they reached out to all parties and notes teachers unions can have a lot of political influence. 

"I think the teachers unions do get people out to vote. They do have their candidates to endorse. But when you look at it the voter turnout is in the two and three and sometimes 4%," Rich said.

Finally on the topics of actual threats, which that school boards association survey shows may have prompted 30% of board incumbents not to run. 

"The culture wars of our country appear to be manifesting themselves at school board meetings, right," Worona said. "But the answer to your question is are we really seeing that in this school board election that's about to be underway — I don't know. We're going to have to see what the results are."

Worona and Schneider say the state school boards association intends to do another post-election survey to see what compelled new board members to run and again what may have caused some incumbents not to run again.