An action has been filed with the state Education Department to remove Schenectady school superintendent Eric Ely and Board of Education member Jeff Janiszewski from office because of their alleged misconduct in getting a school budget passed.
The action, known as a 310 Appeal after a section in Education Law, also requests that the education commissioner invalidate the school district’s second budget vote, of June 16; force the district to recalculate its so-called contingency budget, and submit a new contingency budget to the Education Department for review and approval.
Legal papers were served on Superintendent Ely on Tuesday morning and were presented to the counsel’s office of the Education Department yesterday afternoon.
Ely will have 20 days to reply. There is no time limit that I can discover for the education commissioner to make a decision.
For legal purposes, the petitioner making this appeal is Vince Riggi, a resident of the Bellevue neighborhood and longtime watchdog of local government.
In fact it originated within the Education Department itself, with a mid-level employee who asked not to be identified, who tells me she consulted with her superiors and was encouraged to do it. Since as an employee she could not be the one to bring the action, she recruited an outsider to fill the lead role.
The petition was signed by 32 people, including Roger Hull, former president of Union College, who, however, told me he does not endorse the request for the removal of Ely and Janiszewski. “I don’t think that should have been in there,” he told me. “That’s not our call.”
But he agreed about the budget. “The whole process was flawed,” he said. “People ought to stand up and be heard.” He was referring to the stunt pulled by Superintendent Ely and endorsed by the school board, of which Janiszewski was then president, in artificially inflating the contingency, or fall-back, budget, which would take effect if the regular budget was defeated at the polls.
The first regular budget, in the amount of $160.1 million, which would have raised taxes 4.8 percent, did get defeated at the polls, on May 19.
The board and the superintendent then exercised their option to try again with a slightly revised version, which, contrary to what you would expect, raised spending slightly and increased taxes a further percentage point.
If voters did not like that one, well, the back-up contingency budget, they revealed, would go all the way up to $165.5 million and would raise taxes 15.8 percent, which was quite astounding.
How could such a thing be? How could a fall-back budget be higher than the regular budget?
Superintendent Ely admitted the truth in an editorial board meeting here at the Daily Gazette on June 4. In calculating the contingency budget he
used a projected enrollment increase that he had not used in his original budget and that he did not believe himself. This was crucial because enrollment is exempt from the spending cap imposed on other parts of a contingency budget.
He took a projection from a consultant’s study of 471 new students next year, in addition to the 10,000 or so now enrolled. He multiplied that by the $13,475 average cost of educating a student and got $6,346,725, which he then plugged into the state formula for a contingency budget (which is not the state-recommended way to do it).
In response to our questions, he told us he actually expected an increase of only “200-some odd students” and had not made any special provisions even for that number in his regular budget because that many would just be absorbed. “We build that in,” he said.
He defended his action by saying he was required to use a “research-based number.”
So the $6 million was lard. It was not in the budget that Ely and the board submitted to the voters and wanted to get adopted.
It had the effect of scaring people into voting the second time, on June 16, for the slightly revised budget, with its 5.8 percent tax increase.
So attest the people who signed the petition. Their statement reads: “I voted ‘yes’ to approve the district budget of the Schenectady City Schools because of the fact that the Schenectady City School district
threatened me with a higher budget and property tax if I voted ‘no.’ I would not have voted to approve the budget but for the fact that the District told me that the contingency budget (for a defeated budget) would have materially increased my school taxes.” That’s why they ask for the second vote to be invalidated.
That second vote was interesting enough. Within an hour of the polls closing, the school administration announced that the budget had been narrowly defeated — 955 to 947 — despite the obvious disadvantage to the voters. From people I spoke to, it seemed this was an expression of protest and a challenge to the school administration. “We’re calling their bluff,” one said.
But then the next day, lo, school officials took a second look at the voting machines and said they discovered a transposition of numbers.
Someone had recorded “106” yes votes on a machine where there were actually “160.” A difference of 54 votes, and that swung the result. “I feel the contingency budget was bogus from the get-go,” Vince Riggi says. “Common sense told me it couldn’t be right. If it was a true contingency budget, the regular budget would have been defeated hands down.”
Indeed, a legitimate contingency budget would have been only $159 million. So clearly the people of Schenectady got snookered. Whether the normally lethargic Education Department in Albany will bestir itself to rectify this situation is something we will just have to wait and see. I for one will not be holding my breath, but at least we now have a formal action on record. Superintendent Ely will have to reply, and the education commissioner will eventually have to rule.
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