Voters shook up the establishment Tuesday by rejecting the Schenectady City School District’s $160 million budget, defeating a Board of Education incumbent and electing two political newcomers.
The budget was defeated by a vote of 1,010 to 890. Attorney Diane Herrmann and Arthur’s Market co-owner Joyce Wachala received 1,712 and 1,156 votes, respectively, to win three-year seats. Denise Della Villa, former Howe PTO president, received 693 votes and incumbent Linda Bellick got 612.
The turnout of 1,900 voters was higher than the 1,364 in 2008, when there were no contested races. There are about 30,000 registered voters in the city.
Superintendent Eric Ely attributed the budget defeat to negative media coverage.
“Every press story we’ve seen in the last two months has been pretty negative. I think people take that to the ballot and make their decision. Sometimes, the vote doesn’t match the reality.”
Issues such as the indictment of former facilities director Steven Raucci on terrorism charges, the suicides of four Schenectady High School students this school year and incidents of violence and bullying have been in the local media recently.
Ely said he received very few calls from people about the budget, only from people who disliked the plan to eliminate the elementary librarians and replace them with literacy teachers.
The Board of Education is scheduled to meet tonight at 7 p.m. at Mont Pleasant Middle School. Ely said he believes the soonest the district could go out for another vote is June.
“The board has the option to come back with another budget vote or go to a contingency. I’m not sure which one they’re going to do,” he said.
The proposed $160 million budget represented an increase of nearly 4 percent from last year’s $154 million spending plan. The budget had sought to eliminate the positions of 17 teachers and 30 paraprofessionals, four secretaries, seven librarians and five administrators. Some of the positions are vacant. It would have also tapped $3 million from its surplus. If the budget is defeated twice and a contingency budget is adopted, the district cannot increase spending in most areas by more than 120 percent of the consumer price index or 4 percent of the current year budget, whichever is less. However, enrollment growth allows certain expenditures to exceed the 4 percent cap. In this case, the cap would be $165 million, according to district spokeswoman Karen Corona.
The two new candidates will take their seats in July. Reached by telephone on Tuesday evening, the 47-year-old Herrmann said, “People in the city are ready for a change.”
Herrmann planned to focus on her goals of transparency, open communication and accountability. She said she was not surprised by the budget defeat. She said voters are unhappy with the Raucci situation, the decision to move Howe school and the spending.
“I don’t think the city has faith in the school district at this point,” she said.
Herrmann also thanked Bellick for her nine years of service on the board. “I think some of what happened with her was out of her control, she was a victim of her circumstances,” she said.
Wachala did not know of her victory until a reporter called her.
“You’re kidding! Oh my gosh. I’m flabbergasted. I’m incredibly happy,” she said.
Wachala, 39, admitted that she had been shooting for at least third place and did not think she had a shot at capturing a seat. She said she looked forward to working with Herrmann.
Wachala’s top priority is transparency and spending. “I think we have to look at that budget real close and we have to start saving money proactively, rather than reactively. We’ve got to look at where we can cut a lot of our spending.”
Della Villa and Bellick could not be reached for comment.
There was an anti-incumbent feeling among some voters.
“I’d like to get everyone off the board,” said Margaret Holoday, who was voting at Schenectady High School Tuesday evening. “I don’t agree with the school board. I don’t agree with how the money is being spent.”
Holoday said she believed the board was being run like an “old boy’s network,” alluding to the scandals involving Raucci and how the board conducts its meetings. “I think Schenectady needs to clean up the school board and the Police Department so we can get on with having a nice city again,” she added.
Residents were also concerned about spending.
“I think it’s about time everybody tightened the belt,” said resident Ned Martin.
There were some defenders of the budget, including resident Melanie Madden.
“I think we need a lot of changes in the school district. Education costs money. Given the economy, the last place we need to cut is education,” she said.