JOHNSTOWN — On Tuesday 550 fewer voters turned out for the Greater Johnstown School District budget vote than voted during the June 9 all mail-in vote, and the outcome was very different, even though the budget was exactly the same.
Tuesday’s 2020-21 school budget re-votes operated under different rules from June 9 when the coronavirus pandemic prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to mandate all 675 school districts in New York state to mail out school election absentee ballots to every identifiable voter.
On Tuesday the 10 school budget re-votes held throughout the state allowed in-person voting and required districts to approve all absentee ballot requests — the prevalence of COVID-19 being used to fulfill the valid reason required by state law for mailing in a vote.
Most of the school budgets that failed June 9 — 7 out of 10 — passed on the revote Tuesday, but most weren’t like Johnstown, which presented exactly the same budget to voters as the one that didn’t muster the required approval percentage on June 9
GJSD resident Gary Locatelli said he thinks Cuomo’s decision to drop the mandate for districts to mail out ballots to every voter may have helped Johnstown get the voter approval percentage it needed. The $38.97 million budget calls for a 5-percent property tax levy increase.
Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association, said a second all-mail vote was not an option available to the GJSD, or any district.
“School districts conducted the budget revote within the parameters that were provided to them in the governor’s executive order, the parameters of which did not include the authority to send all of the absentee ballots to every resident, but for a specific request [for an absentee ballot] from a resident,” Worona said.
“I do believe it had an impact,” Locatelli said. “I think that maybe a lot of the elderly people didn’t want to go out, or have a way to get there, and, probably, a lot of uninformed people didn’t even know it was taking place.”
Locatelli said he and his wife requested absentee ballots because they are concerned about going to places where they might be exposed to COVID-19. Locatelli is the most recent president of the Johnstown Senior Center, but he said he resigned on Monday because he’s afraid that organization is moving too quickly to reopen.
Because the proposed tax hike exceeded the state’s tax cap, the budget needed 60 percent voter approval to pass. On June 9 it came close to passing with 57 percent approval; on Tuesday it passed with 65 percent.
Johnstown’s budget budget approval on Tuesday defied the statewide trend.
On Tuesday three school districts attempted to override their state tax cap during the re-vote, but only Johnstown succeeded. Both the Rensselaer City School District and the Fort Edward Union Free School District failed to reach the 60 percent approval threshold.
Voter turnout has been breaking records in Johnstown each of the last several years as as the district has faced a $4 million budget deficit and a two-decade trend of declining student enrollment. As a result, the school budget last year eliminated nearly all extra-curricular sports funding, cut more than 40 staff members, including two principals, closed one of its elementary schools and converted its beloved Knox Junior High School into an office and storage building.
During the 2018-19 school budget process, Johnstown’s school administrators began to forecast the need for tax levy increases to sustain the district. After the first proposal was voted down, a re-vote saw a record turnout. The budget was approved with a 3.7 percent tax levy increase and about $1.1 million in spending cuts, which included eliminating at least 13 positions.
During the 2019-20 budget process, district officials warned of a deep structural budget deficit that was much worse than what was estimated the previous year.
The school board warned voters it would eliminate all extracurricular sports funding unless voters agreed to close the entire budget gap with a 35 percent tax levy increase, but, amid even higher turnout than the previous year, the budget failed to achieve the 60-percent approval needed to break the tax cap.
Johnstown then eliminated nearly all of its sports funding and made other substantial spending cuts, including another 19 staff members. That reduced the proposed budget to a 14.6-percent tax levy increase, allowing for a simple majority to pass the budget. On June 18, 2019 Johnstown’s budget revote received 1,393 yes votes to 803 no votes. District residents then conducted a private fundraising campaign to raise about $300,000 to restore the district’s sports teams.
GJSD school budget revote results Tuesday:
1,382 yes votes to 731 no votes, 65 percent approval, budget succeeds
GJSD school budget vote results June 9
1,526 yes votes to 1,137 no votes, 57 percent approval, failed to break New York state tax cap requirement.