Citizenship homework: Ignore the grandstanding, educate yourself, and vote

Michael Conners, Albany County’s comptroller, held a press conference last week outside of Guilderland High School to lambast the district for scheduling the vote on a capital project for Oct. 16 instead of Nov. 6. He called it a “secret election” and said it was “unAmerican,” concluding he would vote “no” on the project, not on its merit but because of the “abysmal” process used.

We didn’t cover his grandstanding.

Why? Because we had already written about the issue and were satisfied with the way the school district handled it.

On Sept. 13, we published a story delineating the $42.7 million capital project, including the reason the vote wasn’t on Election Day. Here’s what our Guilderland reporter, Elizabeth Floyd Mair, wrote:

Neil Sanders, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, noted at the Sept. 11 school board meeting that the district had reached out to the Albany County Board of Elections to ask if the referendum could be part of the general election in November, but was told that that could create confusion for voters and could potentially pave the way for legal challenges later.

The district lines are not the same, he said, and the polling places — with residents voting in the catchment areas for the five elementary schools —  are not the same, all of which could lead to voter confusion and frustration.

The coverage of last week’s press conference by other media — media that has largely ignored the capital project — has led to speculation, or even assertions, that the school district is up to something nefarious.

One candidate in the upcoming State Assembly race, Conservative Joseph P. Sullivan, citing television coverage of Conners’s press conference, termed it a “sneaky Guilderland vote” in his blog. He wrote, “Time to end this scam!”

In reality, the Guilderland School Board and administration have been open about the entire process. A committee of parents, teachers, administrators, and community members with experience in construction worked with a team of architects and engineers, beginning in March and ending in June to determine priorities for the project and develop the proposal.

The committee was guided, in part, by a survey of students, parents, teachers, staff, and community members taken in January, in which 61 percent of respondents said that “safe and secure” buildings was their highest priority. The project, in turns, calls for spending about $21 million for safety and security.

The committee presented its findings to the school board on July 6, and the board voted on Aug. 14 to adopt the committee’s recommendation. School board meetings are, by law, open to the public, and Guilderland goes the extra step of televising its meetings. They are broadcast live on Time Warner Cable channel 1302 and also available through the district’s website anytime a citizen cares to look. The district followed up with with a public information session at the Guilderland library on Oct. 3.

In short, the process, from start to finish, was a model of transparency — nothing sneaky or secret about it.

We understand Conners’s point that more voters are better. But having a school election simultaneously with a general election simply doesn’t work, according to Albany County Election Commissioner Matthew Clyne.

First of all, there is the problem of school district lines not matching town or, in some cases, even county lines. Guilderland residents who live on the edge of town are well aware of this because a year ago, those who live in other school districts saw huge increases in their school taxes as Guilderland’s equalization rate plummeted.

Guilderland residents who live in the Voorheesville, Mohonasen, Schalmont, or South Colonie school districts saw tax hikes ranging from 12 to 19 percent. Yes, those four other public school districts are within the Guilderland town lines along with the Guilderland district, itself, of course. The Guilderland school district, too, reaches into towns besides Guilderland.

And so it goes — all across New York State. This is because today’s school districts were formed in the mid-20th-Century from tiny common school districts — Guilderland had 15 — that had been served with one- or two-room schoolhouses and were absorbed into centralized districts.

While the Albany County Board of Elections handles school district elections and fire district elections, too, combining them with a general election would be problematic. Voters going to a polling place for the general election — often a firehouse rather than a schoolhouse — could well be unaware of which school district they are in.

Let’s say you live in the town of Bethlehem. You go to your polling place on Election Day and you get your paper ballot and you see, in addition to the general-election candidates, there’s a Guilderland School District vote on a capital project. Maybe you live in the part of Bethlehem that is in the Bethlehem School District, not the Guilderland district but, unaware, you vote anyway. There is no means for checking if your vote is valid.

Re-configuring school districts to match municipal lines is not politically feasible. Put simply: It won’t happen.

“We’re not going to put special-interest elections on the general election ballot,” said Clyne. “The only way we can do that is if a state statute mandated it.” This was the case until recently with the Albany City School District but that district does follow city lines.

Clyne also said, “The ballot is not physically large enough to accommodate more. As it is, we have eight parties as opposed to the two we used to have. People are already complaining about the font size, and that they can’t read propositions on the back of the ballot … Adding more just isn’t feasible.”

Clyne went on, “The large issue is there are too many fire districts, too many school districts … It’s just not a workable solution … Piggybacking extraneous bond proposals onto general-election ballots leaves too much room for error.”

The county’s board of elections does oversee the school budget votes and the elections for school boards, which are held statewide on the third Tuesday in May. A state-set date for those votes was adopted during the George Pataki administration with the thought that more New Yorkers would vote in school elections if a specific date were set aside year after year.

We posited the idea to Clyne of having school bond votes held on the same day as the budget and election votes. This would solve the problem of causing confusion with the general election and also the problem of municipal lines differing from school-district boundaries.

“That would be an internal political decision by the districts,” Clyne said, adding, “Districts wouldn’t want that because they’d be presenting voters with sticker shock.”

A required May vote for bond issues would also clump school projects across New York for review by the State Education Department, already a time-consuming and fraught process.

Although we believe the third Tuesday in May is more workable than Conners’s call for adding school-project votes to the general election ballot, the problem and the solution is really much more deeply rooted.

Citizens in a democracy need to do their part — each one of us — to make a government of the people, by the people, and for the people viable.

The numbers collected by the New York State School Boards Association show a dispiriting trend in voter turnout for the third Tuesday in May. This last May, the turnout plummeted by more than 50,000 from the year before, the lowest total since the inception of the tax cap in 2012. Voter turnout went from about 800,000 in 2012 to about 500,000 in 2018.

This is in a state that has over 12 million enrolled voters. According to United States Census Bureau estimates, New York has 15.7 million residents old enough to vote. That means that only about 3 percent of New Yorkers are voting in school elections — three out of every 100 New Yorkers.

More of us need to see the importance of our schools. School budgets are the only budgets that citizens get to vote on directly, so there’s that for motivation. But school boards shape the future of our children and thereby the future of our country.

We need to pay attention.

We urge Guilderland School District voters to buck the trend this Oct. 16.  Read the stories we’ve written on the capital project, look up the meetings where it was discussed on the district’s website, read the details in the legal notices the district published, also available on our website. Or read the fliers that the school mailed to every home in the district.

Be informed, then go to the polls and cast your ballot. Don’t do what Conners said he’d do — voting “no” because of an abysmal process. The process was transparent. Vote on the project’s merit. Remember there are places in the world where people are dying, literally dying, for the right to vote. Let’s not squander it.

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