Schenectady school officials’ moods changed Wednesday after learning that a tabulation error meant voters had actually passed the district’s $160.6 million budget the previous night.
The initial tally was 955 against to 949 in favor at the end of election night. However, Superintendent Eric Ely said Wednesday there was a mistake at the high school polling place. One of the poll clerks wrote down the number of “yes” votes as 106 when it should have been 160.
Counting absentee ballots, the official results are now 1,001 in favor and 954 against. The Board of Education will certify the results and formally adopt the $160,624,500 budget at its meeting on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
Ely said the problem was discovered Wednesday at about 2 p.m. when Board of Education Clerk Richard Yager went to the polling places to check to see that the machine tally matched what was written down on the tabulation sheets. District officials immediately called the Board of Elections.
Ely said the machines are locked down when the polls are closed at 9 p.m. to prevent anyone from recording additional votes.
District officials were speaking to the three poll workers at that location to determine the source of the problem.
“I don’t like mistakes, but I understand that people make mistakes. I would have slept last night,” Ely said.
The budget’s passage means the board is spared from having to adopt a contingency budget of $165.5 million, which would have increased the tax levy by 15.8 percent. District officials said state law locked them into a formula that used the inflation rate plus costs from increased enrollment.
“Nobody wants to do a contingency,” Ely said.
That possibility had prompted Assemblyman Jim Tedisco, R-Glenville, to craft a bill mandating that a contingency budget always be below a budget previously rejected by voters. He also said that using increased enrollment figures when calculating the budget is “totally inappropriate.
“Whether this passed by six votes or lost by six votes, it’s something we shouldn’t accept in the future,” he said.
The budget that passed has a 5.8 percent increase in the tax levy. The tax rate cannot be set until the city’s new assessments are certified.
Ely acknowledged that the district has had some issues in this election season. It previously forgot to put the date of the budget vote in a legal notice published in The Daily Gazette and had to print another notice.
“Right now, it seems like Murphy’s Law — what can go wrong will go wrong,” he said.
Ely said that given the amount of scrutiny the district has faced, somebody will probably question these results.
President Jeff Janiszewski said he was relieved by the change of events: “I’d much rather have an adopted, voter-approved budget.”
Earlier in the day, in response to the budget’s apparent defeat, Janiszewski had said he was encouraged that more people voted yes on the second budget than the first one.
“I think it validates what the board did by adding back the elementary librarians,” he said.
The board added $480,000 from the first budget, which would have had a tax levy impact of 4.8 percent.
Janiszewski said he does not believe those who voted no mistrust the district. However, he acknowledged that there have been a lot of controversies, including teenage suicides and the arrest of former facilities director Steven Raucci on terrorism charges.
But he said the district is moving forward and has accomplished some of its goals. It has seen double-digit gains in its state test scores and reduced its disciplinary referrals.
Janiszewski said earlier in the day that had the budget failed, his preference was not to spend all of the appropriated money and to leave some in reserve so the district could offset the tax rate increase the following year.
Board member Maxine Brisport said news of the budget’s approval was a “complete shock.”
She added that she would not have supported the contingency budget because of its high tax rate, despite it being required under state law.
“That would have been awful in my mind to impose that on the community,” she said.
She added that when returns from the high school polling place came in Tuesday night, she was surprised because that is usually a high-turnout precinct.
Brisport said some voters have taken out their frustrations at the polls. There has been an “atypical cycle” of negative events happening in the district.
“It’s unusual for a school district to have endured what we have,” she said.
Brisport said it is going to take a sustained effort to restore the public’s trust and it will not happen overnight. She said “real changes” are needed in the district, without elaborating on who or what needs to be changed.