CAPITAL REGION — School district budgets for 2020-21 started to earn public approval Tuesday night as officials tallied absentee ballots in an unprecedented school election.
In Schenectady, the election ushered in two new faces to the school board. Incumbent Bernice Rivera earned the most votes, followed by Princella Learry, who graduated from, worked in and sent her kids to Schenectady schools, and Nohelani Etienne, the mother of three students in the district. Etienne narrowly edged out incumbent Katherine Stephens by seven votes. Incumbent Dharam Hitlall also lost his bid for another term. The district’s $204.6 million budget was approved on a vote of 3,203 to 1,090.
(The election results remain “unofficial” until formally accepted by the school board, which some but not all school boards did shortly after results were tallied Tuesday night.)
Voters in Johnstown for a second consecutive year rejected the district’s first budget proposal as officials look to crawl out of a financial hole. While 57 percent of voters supported the budget, according to board President Chris Tallon, the district needed 60 percent to approve the budget. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has allowed for budget revotes this year but not specified when or how those votes will take place.
Districts weren’t allowed to start counting ballots, many of which have been secured in district offices for the past week, until 5 p.m. Tuesday in public tallies that many districts live-streamed.
Teams of district staff and volunteers across the region filled libraries and gymnasiums – some people wearing face masks and largely sitting apart – to hand open and count thousands of mailed ballots. Some districts used county election machines to scan and count the ballots, while others counted the ballots all by hand.
The gradual process stretched well into the night before districts started to release election results. The first results started to emerge around around 7:30 p.m., primarily from smaller districts. Northville, Canajoharie, Schalmont and Waterford-Halfmoon school districts all announced approved budgets by 8:30 p.m.
As the night stretched on, more approvals came in. Voters in Galway, Cobleskill-Richmondville, Mohonasen, Niskayuna and Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake all approved the local school budgets.
The budget and school board elections, typically scheduled for the third Tuesday in May, were moved to absentee-ballots-only and twice delayed by executive orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
With districts mailing ballots to large numbers of eligible voters – though in most districts not all eligible voters – voter participation appeared to surge in many districts. In Burnt Hills, for example, the district counted over 5,000 total votes, up from just over 1,500 total votes last year, and the largest number of votes in the district’s history. Schenectady counted just over 1,000 votes last year and over 4,000 votes this year. Schalmont more than doubled its participation from less than 750 last year to over 1,500 this year. Scotia-Glenville counted over 4,200 votes on Tuesday as voters approved the budget, up from a total of 1,122 votes last year.
“I want to thank everyone who took the time to participate in this important process by voting today,” Schalmont Superintendent Carol Pallas said in a statement. “We are grateful for today’s show of support and will keep working to move the district forward.”
Districts have faced an uncertain funding landscape throughout the spring as Cuomo and education analysts have assured districts to expect funding cuts, but even as school officials finalized budgets, no one knew just how deep those funding cuts could be.
Ultimately, districts moved forward with budget proposals that eliminate scores of staff and educator positions, working to minimize direct layoffs of individuals by freezing most new hiring and leaving unfilled positions vacant. In many districts, retirees will not be replaced as officials looked to maximize savings while minimizing the direct impact on people.
In the 58 school districts across the seven counties surrounding the state capital – Schenectady, Saratoga, Albany, Schoharie, Fulton, Montgomery and Rensselaer counties – voters were asked to approve over $3 billion in combined spending on public schools, funded by over $1.5 billion in local tax levies. The overall spending increase represented a 1.55 percent increase over the current year’s budgets, and the combined local levies increased 2.3 percent.
While district results started to pile up by 10:30 p.m., a handful of notable districts were still counting ballots late into the night and some suspended the counts with plans to pick back up Wednesday morning: Saratoga Springs and other districts were still tallying results at press time. Schohaire school officials adjourned the ballot counting around 10 p.m., promising to resume the count Wednesday morning, noting a “high volume of absentee ballots received” by the district. Amsterdam stopped counting for the night at 11.
Budgets also met with voter approval in the Broadalbin-Perth, Fonda-Fultonville, Canajoharie, Fort Plain, Mayfield, Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville and Northville school districts. Results for Gloversville were not available at press time.
The Rensselaer City School District, which proposed a 19 percent tax levy increase in the face of deep financial challenges, in addition to Johnstown, appeared to have the only rejected budget proposals in the Capital Region as results came in Tuesday night.
The school budgets adopted this week, though, may not be the final word on the subject. Cuomo still has the ability under the state budget to cut state aid to local governments like school districts throughout the year. Districts planned for the possibility in different ways, with some districts factoring in funding cuts as high as 20 percent into planned budgets, while other districts maintained strong enough reserves to protect against future aid cuts.
Cuomo and other state officials had suggested districts would get word on updated state aid figures by the middle of May, but a month later districts know no more about their state aid than they did at the start of May. Cuomo has held off on slamming districts with budget cuts as he and other state and local officials press federal lawmakers to pass a new stimulus bill supporting state and local governments. Whether or not such stimulus comes through will have an outsize impact on whether districts will have to cut budgets further during the school year.
“With New York’s ongoing budget challenges, we are eagerly waiting on the federal government to help the state cover its Covid-related expenses, and our hope is that public schools will be at the front of the line for such assistance,” Mohonasen Superintendent Shannon Shine said in a statement released Tuesday night, thanking district residents for the sign of support.