Capital Region

Districts face tight schedule on school budget votes amid COVID-19 delays

Short turnaround gives voters small window to submit mail-in ballots
Absentee ballots being counted in 2019. This year's school elections will all be absentee
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Absentee ballots being counted in 2019. This year's school elections will all be absentee

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

CAPITAL REGION — Voters in this year’s absentee-only school elections will have little time to fill out and send in their ballots as school districts work under a compressed timeline and still unknown state aid details.

With the annual school budget and school board elections rescheduled for June 9 as absentee voting only, districts still need to get final state aid figures, finalize and adopt budgets, print budget notices and ballots, stuff tens of thousands of envelopes and send ballots to eligible voters – U.S. citizens 18 or older living in the district for at least a month. And districts need to give voters enough time to fill out and return ballots in time to return to the district by 5 p.m. on the day of the election. The ballots, at least, will come with prepaid return postage.

The timeline is so compressed that under a projected timeline in Schenectady, voters may not receive their ballots by the time the Postal Service recommends voters return mail-in ballots ahead of an election due date. 

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District officials also acknowledge it may be impossible to get ballots to every qualified voter but say they will do everything they can to reach registered voters and give all district residents a chance to request an absentee ballot. In Schenectady, district officials are hoping to purchase lockboxes to position at a handful of schools in the district, giving voters a chance to drop their ballots directly at a school site if they don’t have enough time to send it through the mail. The district expects to mail over 30,000 absentee ballots to district residents, using a list of registered voters within the district from the Schenectady County Board of Elections.

“It’s a little bit of a logistical nightmare, but we are going to get it done,” said Aaron Bochniak, acting superintendent of Schenectady city schools.

A draft timeline given by Bochniak has Schenectady officials mailing ballots out by June 3, with voters receiving ballots sometime between June 4 and June 6. With the district planning to hold to a strict deadline of only counting ballots received by June 9 at 5 p.m., voters will have a short window of time to fill out their ballot and return it in the mail in time for the postal service to get it back to the district to be counted.

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, the U.S. Postal Service said first-class mail, which it recommends if used in elections, is delivered within two to five days. The postal service also recommends voters mail completed ballots “at least one week before the due date to account for any unforseen events or weather issues.” 

All districts in the region face a similarly difficult timeline.

A local print shop operator working with districts across the region to print budget materials said the compressed schedule presents a nearly impossible task given all that must go into the printing and mailing process. The owner, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the logistical challenges, said their print shop is currently short staffed, with workers’ hours reduced to benefit from a federal “workshare” program, and they are not sure if ramping up hours will be possible to maintain the program benefits. The print shop is also operating under expanded safety precautions and is relying on a disrupted supply chain to access paper, envelopes and other material, all which present potential delays in processing mailings.

The compressed voting timeline also has the print shop expecting a crush of districts looking to get budget notices, ballots and envelopes printed in a small window of time. The owner last week said none of the dozens of districts the shop works with has committed to a date to have materials prepared for printing, but they expect the work to flood in in the days after districts get word on their final state budget figures. The print shop can only run its presses so fast, and the level of materials districts need printed – budget notices, ballots, multiple envelopes and more – could be greater than in typical school years. Also, the ink needs time to dry and staff needs time to fold and collate documents.

“What happens on the 20th when I get 10 jobs in on the same exact day?” the owner asked. “It’s going to be absolute chaos … we will try to pull off what we can.”

Once all the materials are printed, they have to be stuffed into envelopes by the thousands, and it’s hard to know how long exactly the post office will take to both get mailings to voters and return ballots to school officials.

“In a perfect world, we would perhaps have gotten information with this executive order about a month ago,” said Jay Worona, general counsel of the New York State School Boards Association, referring to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s May 1 order setting the new election date and rules. “The timing of this presents significant challenges for school districts in trying to notice properly and put taxpayers in a position to be not only notified but made well aware of what this process is all about.”

When the governor released the order late in the day Friday, May 1, the school boards association scrambled to send out a legal alert to its thousands of members late that night, outlining the timeline districts should follow to meet all public notice and other requirements associated with holding school elections.

The timeline is almost impossible to comply with fully. The state Division of Budget has indicated it will provide school districts with updated state aid figures – likely reduced even further than they already have been – sometime this coming week. Under a new state law, for instance, districts are required to mail ballots to eligible voters serving in the military by May 15, but many districts don’t expect to have finalized budgets by that point, given the unknown state aid numbers.

Districts will also have to send out two separate mailings: a budget notice, informing district homeowners of the upcoming elections, as well as the actual ballots.

“We are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to comply with one law without knowing what the final numbers will be,” Michael Borges, executive director of the state Association of School Business Officials, said of the tight budget schedule. “The budget timelines as outlined currently do not add up.”

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