Why We Need to PAUSE Our School Budget Vote
On the second Tuesday in May, in ordinary times, voters across New York State (with the exception of those in the Conference of Big Five School Districts—Buffalo, Syracuse, NYC, Yonkers, Rochester) head to the polls to cast a ballot in favor of or against their local public school district budget. Also on that date, citizens vote for fellow community members to represent them on the school board.
But these are not ordinary times. On May 1, under emergency authority given him by the legislature, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared by Executive Order that the vote on school district budgets and school board elections will take place on June 9, by absentee ballot only. As school districts run their own elections, they are now charged with sending absentee ballots to all “qualified voters” in their districts.
I understand the need to make accommodations in this uncertain time. But this is a poorly thought-out order that places a tremendous financial and organizational burden on school districts.
First, let’s talk about the process of identifying voters. According to state education law, a qualified voter is someone who is a citizen of the United States, at least 18 years of age on the date of the vote, and a resident of the school district for at least 30 days immediately preceding that date. How are school districts supposed to identify those who are qualified to vote? This will be a terribly time-consuming (if not impossible) process, especially on such a short timeline. We do know who our registered voters are, but the order states that absentee ballots must be sent to “qualified voters,” which is very different from registered voters.
Second, is the issue of finding, training, and paying people to do the job. There are over 30,000 registered voters in the Kingston City School District, and surely many more “qualified” voters. Sending absentee ballots will require substantial staff time, and counting ballots will be a long and arduous process, especially for larger districts like mine. Boards of Elections may not have enough staff to help with the vote counting, especially in counties with many and/or large districts. I estimate that our Kingston district alone will need close to 40 vote counters. If needed, how will we train new staff to count ballots in such a short time? How will the cost of that training be covered? How will we ensure compliance with social distancing while votes are being counted?
With the ambiguity about the definition of a “qualified voter,” the rush to get ballots in the mail, and the likely necessity to use inexperienced vote counters, the potential exists for mistakes, or outright fraud. After implementing this mandate, will we be given some level of legal protection and financial help to deal with election fraud claims and challenges to election outcomes?
For this year only, allow school districts that propose a budget that is at or below the tax levy limit to pass their budgets without a public vote.
Third, in a normal election, school districts rent voting machines from and hire election inspectors through Boards of Election. There is a modest cost associated with these services. Switching to absentee ballots, with all the associated materials and labor, will dramatically increase the cost of this election— in the Kingston district alone I estimate, conservatively, by more than 10 times, to $100,000. And this at a time of great uncertainty about revenues and enormous fiscal challenges.
Fourth, there is the question of timing. There is a strict timeline for the public notification and hearing dates for voting on district budgets and board of education members; under this order, that timeline is severely compressed. The lesser problem is the added pressure this places on already-stressed districts. The more serious concern is that if and when a district budget is defeated, it must be placed before voters again in an election that occurs 30 days after the first one, or the budget defaults to contingency. Under Governor Cuomo’s executive order, the date for this vote will be July 9, which is nine days after the end of a school district’s 2019-20 fiscal year. This means that school districts will not be authorized to spend funds while they await budget approval—no payroll, no health insurance premiums, no bills. We could not cover costs in those two weeks.
And finally, there is the question of the legitimacy of budgets that are being placed before voters. The Governor has stated that there will be several “lookback” points throughout the year during which school aid may be reduced to accommodate revenue shortfalls. This means that our communities will be voting on very uncertain estimates; the level at which we hope our program can be funded. It will certainly not help the school/ community relationship if the public votes to support one spending plan but then discovers that it must ultimately live by another.
There’s a way out of this mess. For this year only, allow school districts that propose budgets that are at or below the tax levy limit to put these into effect without a public vote. (NYS requires that the local school tax levy remain at the CPI or 2%, whichever is lower. If a district chooses to put forward a budget that exceeds the limit, it must be approved by a supermajority, 60% of voters.) The vast majority of budgets that are at or under the tax levy limit are passed by their communities; in 2019, 99.5% of these budgets were approved. Since there would be no public vote, school districts would not be permitted to put capital projects or other propositions on their ballot this year. And finally because there will be no vote, outgoing incumbent school board members could be asked to remain in their positions for one more year.
Public involvement in the budgeting and governance process is a key element of community participation in, and local control of, our schools. We certainly want to maintain this engagement and will look forward to the day when it can, once again, be authentic and in response to a meaningful budget and board election. But the Governor’s proposal asks the impossible and further stresses our districts. Desperate times call for desperate measures. These are desperate times.
Dr. Paul J. Padalino is the superintendent of the Kingston City School District in Kingston, New York.