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School budget votes take place amid uncertainty

Creative Commons

Saturday is the deadline for voters in the state’s school board and school budget elections to get their ballots in the mail.

There will be no in-person voting in the June 9 elections due to safety precautions because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

All voting will be by mail. Under an executive order by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, all voters are permitted to use the absentee ballot option to cast their votes. Schools, closed for months because of the pandemic, will not have polling places this year. 

“It is all by absentee ballot,” said Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. "School districts can set up secure ballot boxes or mail slots, where a voter could walk up to the building and deliver it, or use the traditional post office mailing system to get their absentee ballot in."

Voters who want to mail their ballot must do so by Saturday to get them to the schools in time for the deadline. 

Because of the many disruptions in supply chains due to the pandemic, some districts had a shortage of envelopes to send out ballots, but Schneider said they were able to find enough to send them out in time. 

Perhaps an even bigger challenge facing schools is that districts presenting their proposed budgets to voters don’t really know how much money they will receive from the state. 

New York faces a $13 billion deficit after revenues plummeted due to the economic shutdown in response to the pandemic. Cuomo has said repeatedly that if a fourth federal relief package does not include money for state and local governments, $8 billion in cuts will need to be made. 

“You’d be cutting schools 20%, local governments 20% and hospitals 20%,” Cuomo said on April 20. “This is the worst time to do this.” 

Democrats who lead the House of Representatives have approved a $3 trillion package that includes money to help states that were hit hard by the virus balance their budgets. Republicans who lead the Senate say they want to pause the relief packages for a while, though, to judge the results of the earlier measures.  

Schneider said most schools are budgeting with little hard data. 

“The word is uncertainty,” Schneider said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and it’s very tough for our school districts to budget.” 

Many districts are recommending staff and program reductions or relying on attrition and early retirement incentives to cut costs. Others are dipping into reserve funds. Schneider said without a federal bailout package, the cuts are “going to fall on the backs of our students” and he predicts music, sports and language programs and Advanced Placement classes will be eliminated.  

Schneider said most schools are not seeking increased revenues from property taxpayers to make up for the potential shortfall from the state, and nearly all are staying within the 2% per-year property tax cap. 

To add to the uncertainty, schools are not even sure right now whether they will fully reopen in the fall.

Schneider said districts are working with the Board of Regents and State Education Department on a task force to come up with plans that may include socially distanced learning at schools, staggered lunches and fewer seats in classrooms, and having children attend school on alternate weeks. He said there are still many unanswered questions.  

“It all depends on the health and science and the data. Can we reopen schools in September safely?” Schneider asked. “We’re not there yet.”  

Schneider said the supplies needed for reopening, including hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment, as well as physical modifications to classrooms and school buses, will only add to schools’ expenses.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.