Record Turnout in Clarence for Vote on Budget Increase

May 21, 2013 Updated May 21, 2013 at 6:19 PM EDT

By Allen Leight

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May 21, 2013 Updated May 21, 2013 at 6:19 PM EDT

CLARENCE, NY (WKBW) - The back-and-forth battle between supporters and opponents of a 9.8% tax increase in this years Clarence School District budget will finally be resolved, as record numbers of voters turn out to have their voices heard.

Residents began lining up to vote as soon as the polls opened Tuesday morning, and last through the afternoon.

"It's a shock. Like I said, I've never seen anything quite so divisive in this community and it's shown by the out-turning of people here," said Rick Zelawski, a 30-year resident of Clarence who supports the budget.

Some waited nearly 30 minutes to cast their ballot.

Since 1989, there has not been more than about 2,800 voters who have taken part in a Clarence school budget vote. That number was shattered just 6-hours after the polls opened, and some estimate the final turnout to be near 10,000.

Those supporting the budget say the cost increase is worth it to keep the school system top-notch. They argue that too much has already been cut, including 60 positions over the past 2-years. At least 14 more will go even if this tax hike is approved.

And even with the increase, they argue that Clarence will still boast a low tax rate.

"We are going to still be very low. The average tax levy increase over the past 5 years has been .5%," says Brenden Biddlecom, who supports the budget.

Opponents say it is time to send a message to the district and to Albany. They also say school programs do not have to suffer if leaders are willing to make tough decisions, pointing out that the four highest paid gym teachers make a combined $398,000 each year.

"If they would take an early retirement, we could hire 10 more teachers to replace those four and we wouldn't have to cut anything," argues Marlese Wacek, a vocal opponent to the tax hike.

The two sides do agree that long-term issues need to be addressed, pointing to state mandates and the rising costs of pensions. Both sides also agree rising health-care costs are also a challenge for the district, with some calling on the teachers to kick-in more money to cover the increase.

Win or lose, though, everyone agrees that it is better for the entire community when more people are involved with what is going on in the school district.

"I think it's kind of woken up the sleeping giant. I think people realize that these are issues that they can't just sit on the sideline and hope other people are going to fix. You have got to get your hands dirty. You got to get out in the community and get involved and try to make a difference for the better," added Biddlecom.