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NY voters to decide if small city school districts can have higher debt limits

Voting in Pierrepont in St. Lawrence County.
David Sommerstein
Voting in Pierrepont in St. Lawrence County.

New York voters have two constitutional amendments to consider this election, found on the back of the ballot.

One aims to allow the state’s 57 small city school districts — those at least partly located in cities with fewer than 125,000 people — to take on more debt for things like big capital projects.

Most school districts in New York state can incur debt that’s up to 10% of the value of the taxable real estate in their districts. For small city school districts, the state constitution says that number is 5%.

"We have seen situations pop up where that debt limit has served as a barrier and forced the district to, you know, extend out a project," said Brian Fessler, director of government relations at the New York State School Boards Association.

Fessler says breaking down big projects into smaller ones can help small city districts stay under their debt limits, but can ultimately cost taxpayers more money over time.

Ballot proposal one asks voters if they want to remove the 5% debt limit from the state constitution. The legislature has already passed the resolution twice, so now the final step is voter approval.

Advocates tried to push this through back in 2003, but it was voted down 54% to 46%.

According to Fessler, the challenges for small city districts have only grown since then. For example, he says they tend to have disproportionately higher student needs and poverty levels.

"So this is another attempt to really continue with the process of providing either statutory or constitutional balance and equity amongst our school districts in the state," he said.

Fessler says the change isn’t about giving small city districts anything extra. It’s about fixing a decades-old constitutional provision.

And he says places of all sizes stand to benefit. New York’s small cities range in population from a few thousand people in Sherrill in Oneida County to almost 100,000 in Albany.

Fessler says it’s important to support the measure even if you don’t live in one of those small city districts. That’s partly because they educate about one in 10 children statewide.

"And you never know where you’re gonna end up and live and where you might raise a family," he added.

Raising the debt limit isn’t just a blank check for these school districts. Fessler says the same checks and balances will remain in place: every time a school district wants to take on debt or a capital project, they’ll still have to put it to their voters for approval.

"There's always the check right now, appropriately, for voters to determine whether or not they support a particular capital project in these districts."

The legislature is already preparing for this ballot measure to pass. It passed a bill in June that would take the next step and raise the debt limit to 10%.

There is a second ballot proposal. If approved, it would allow the state’s municipalities to exclude debt for sewage facility projects from their debit limits for another 10 years.