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Participation in school budget votes soar with mail-in voting, but comes at ‘tremendous cost’

New York State School Boards Association Facebook

School district budget votes are seeing three to eight times the normal turnout this year as compared to years past. An executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo required all of the voting be done by absentee ballot instead of in-person, because of the coronavirus pandemic. But mail-in voting can be expensive. 

More than 7,000 people voted on the North Syracuse Central School District budget this year, compared to only 1,800 in 2019. The large increase in participation is true for many school districts in central New York and the rest of the state. 

David Albert with the New York State School Boards Association said there are two reasons for the higher than normal turnout. Mail-in voting is one. He said it’s an easier, more convenient process for voters. But he said, the 99% passage rate of school budgets is also an indication of how vital school districts have been during the pandemic.

“I think people realize now more than ever, how important education is, as we transition to distance learning, and also the role that schools have played in their communities during this pandemic,” Albert said.

While the participation and results from absentee voting have been great, Albert said, it’s come at a tremendous cost, nearly four times the amount of a normal, in-person budget vote. School districts had to obtain a list of qualified voters, print out ballots and envelopes, pay for return postage and count thousands of ballots.

“The ideal situation would be to see this kind of turnout, without having to go through the expense of the postage and printing of absentee ballots,” Albert said.

For school districts whose budgets did not pass, they’ll have to go through the same process again for a revote or they could go to a contingency budget with no tax increase.

“A school district has to ask itself, do we really want to repeat this expensive process, knowing that if we reopen in the fall, we know that there is going to be additional costs associated with that,” Albert said.

The extra costs, he said, would include things like public health protections. There are a lot of unknowns with the future of school budgets. Gov. Cuomo has threatened 20% cuts in state aid to schools without help from the federal government to fill the state’s budget gap. That’s left districts to plan budgets assuming the full state aid either will or won't be there.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.