Editorial: What’s really at stake with school budget votes?

On Tuesday, the annual school budget season will come to an end with voting on spending plans for the 2017-18 school year.

Once again, there’s not a single contested race in any North Fork school district. All you’ll ultimately be voting on is the budgets, except in Greenport, where a repair reserve proposition is also on the ballot.

School budget votes are a venerable rite of spring across the North Fork and, like the season, the outlook can be bright and sunny or dark and stormy.

It’s an odd, and some say antiquated, process. Nobody votes on federal, state, county, town or village budgets and, in fact, no one really votes on a school budget. Not the entire package, anyway.

As is the case with municipal budgets, school spending generally falls into two basic categories: mandatory and discretionary.

Mandatory spending includes salaries, transportation, heating and lighting. By far, that’s the bulk of the budget. In that regard, school spending is exactly the same as that of government at various levels.

Even if not a single “yes” vote is cast, paychecks must still be issued, buses gassed up and heating oil delivered. You can toggle the “no” lever until this year’s graduating seniors retire, but that will have a relatively small impact on the bottom line: in this case, school property taxes, which account for about two-thirds of the average property tax bill mailed out by the town. (Though that has been mitigated some in recent years with the state tax levy cap.)

So exactly what is the purpose of a school budget vote? It’s evolved into a referendum on a school system in general and, at times, its administration, including the Board of Education.

Because this is the only opportunity we have for direct — albeit quite limited — input on taxing and spending, some taxpayers automatically vote no.

But the majority of local residents will vote for other reasons. Are students performing well academically? Is spending reasonable and wise or out of control?

In the days before Tuesday’s vote, residents should take the time to examine what their school districts have put on the ballot. We’ve published information about each spending plan on page 3 of this week’s paper.

Take the time to read what’s out there and make an educated decision Tuesday. Most of all, though, get out and vote. Even if your say is limited, it’s still essential.