Voters defeat $43M school project by 58 votes

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Sad faces: Guilderland School Board members Gloria Towle-Hilt, left, and Barbara Fraterrgo look over election results on Tuesday night.

GUILDERLAND — A last-minute campaign to defeat Guilderland’s $42.7 million capital-construction project, with fliers sent out anonymously on Friday, succeeded with 1,317 voting for the project and 1,375 voting against.

The fliers followed an Oct. 4 press conference where Albany County Comptroller Michael Conners stood outside of Guilderland High School to lambast the district for holding the vote on Oct. 16 rather than on Nov. 6, calling it a “secret election” and “un-American” and suggesting the district had done this to limit voter participation.

His comments were reported without investigation by a number of news outlets. In fact, the district had asked the Albany County Board of Elections if it would be possible to hold the vote on Nov. 6, but had been told this was not possible since, among other difficulties, the election-district and school-district boundaries are not the same.

On Tuesday, Conners, a Cohoes resident who had started the groundswell of opposition, said, “I’m very encouraged by the response of the Guilderland school-district voters.” He said he hopes voters will support State Senator Neil Breslin and State Assemblyman John McDonald’s legislation “that will put an end to these voter-suppression elections.”

Conners continued, “For them to try to sneak through this vote, which they’ve done three times in the past seven years, is shameful.”

The bills introduced by Breslin and McDonald would create “blackout time frames” when school bond votes cannot be held, according to Breslin spokesman Evan Schneider. The issue was raised, Schneider said, in discussions during various votes that have occurred in the region, and the idea is to try to ensure that as many people as possible are informed of these votes and to maximize voter involvement, Schneider said.

The blackout periods would be from the date of the general election through March 1 of the following year, and again between the fourth Wednesday in June through the first Monday in September.

So, Tuesday’s vote at Guilderland fell within the period that, had the bill been law, would have been allowed. And further, the bill, if it were law, would not allow for school votes on Election Day. Both Albany County election commissioners concurred a school vote on Election Day is not possible.

The fliers — with only the attribution “Paid for by your neighbors” — claimed the project was “a ‘wish list’ rather than a carefully designed plan to meet critical needs” and also alleged the estimates were inflated.

“I think they have to answer to the district for the way it was done,” school board member Gloria Towle-Hilt said after the results were announced on Tuesday night, referencing the anonymous authors of the flier. “I think we’re a board that encourages people to come. We’re receptive to people’s ideas. But, when it’s done that way at the last minute, it’s hurtful. It hurts the kids. We’re talking about roofs and paving here, and safety issues.”

The board’s longest-serving member, Barbara Fraterrigo, has similar sentiments. “It was a lot of hard work,” she said. “It breaks my heart when someone at the last minute puts out information that is totally erroneous.”

The flier also stressed the cost of the project, terming it “massive” and stating, “Bond act will add even more to our high Guilderland school tax bills … BEFORE next years (sic) property RE-ASSESSMENT!”

The town of Guilderland is currently in the midst of revaluing all properties to full-market value.

For district residents owning a home or property with a full-market value of $326,000 — which, according to school-district documents, is the median in the district — the estimated tax increase per year would have been $103, or $0.315 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Asked what the district would do next, Superintendent Marie Wiles said, “We probably need to read our exit-poll results. That will give us the best idea of where to go next. There’s still work to do. We have to keep our students safe and keep our buildings warm and functioning.”

Unofficial election results read by Assistant Superintendent for Business Neil Sanders about an hour after the polls closed showed that 2,677 people had voted. The count took so long because more people voted than anticipated, and ballots that were photocopied had to be hand-counted.

On Wednesday, The Enterprise obtained the official count, which included 15 valid affidavit ballots — 8 valid affidavit ballots for, and 7 affidavit ballots against — bringing the total vote to 2,692.

The Guilderland School District has 23,762 registered voters, according to the Guilderland School Board clerk, Linda Livingston. This means that 11 percent turned out to have a say on the capital-construction project.

Voters were polled at the district’s five elementary schools. Only Altamont voters passed the proposition, with 199 voting yes, and 156 opposed. The vote at Guilderland Elementary was 315 for and 352 against; at Lynnwood, 258 voted yes and 306 voted no. At Westmere, 263 voted yes and 218 voted no. And at Pine Bush, 274 were in favor and 336 were against.

The overall percentage was 48.9 for the project and 51.1 percent against.

More district residents turned out for Tuesday’s vote than for the May budget vote, which saw 1,972, or about 8 percent of enrolled voters, cast their ballots.

The previous three capital projects had lower turnouts than Tuesday’s vote. The most recent, for $1.2 million, in May 2015, passed by a landslide, 1,768 to 832.

Two years before, in November 2013, voters were given a major project, for $17.3 million, which passed, 897 to 790, and a separate proposition for auditorium updates and lighting the athletic field for $846,300, which was narrowly defeated, 829 to 857.

The capital project vote before that, in November 2007, for $27 million passed easily, 1,056 to 706.

Anonymous opponents

Albany County Legislator Mark Grimm — who says that the robo-calls he sent out soon before a $13-million library building referendum in June 2012 were instrumental in its defeat — called Tuesday’s vote “a win for taxpayers.”

Grimm said that, with regard to this week’s school bond vote, he had been contacted by “average citizens” who wanted to make a flier. They asked him for his ideas on the vote, he said, “and I’m sure they incorporated some of my ideas into the flier.” They drafted the flier and asked me to look it over, he said.

There were a number of people who called him, he said, who were nervous about being identified, but who wanted to do something about the possible tax hike. He declined to name the people he helped with the flier.

An email to the address listed at the bottom of the anonymous flier brought a reply, from an anonymous email account, that read, “My neighbors and I are Guilderland residents who felt strongly the GSD referendum was too much for taxpayers. We initiated our own grassroots efforts to defeat the proposal. We are private citizens who do not seek any media spotlight.”

November vote?

Grimm said the question of whether bond votes can be held on Election Day, and what it would take to do that — “It might take state legislation, and I’d be in favor of that,” he said — is “a little confusing at this point.”

Albany County’s Democratic election commissioner, Matthew Clyne, told The Enterprise  before the election that the only way a school-district bond vote could be included on a Nov. 6 general-election ballot is if it were mandated by a state statute. That was the case in the city of Albany until recently, but there the borders of the city and school district match. They do not match in Guilderland, which could lead to invalid votes by Guilderland town residents who do not live in the school district or by residents in neighboring towns who do live in the school district.

Republican Commissioner Rachel Bledi said Wednesday that propositions are sometimes included on the back of a ballot, but that the Board of Elections is only authorized to place propositions on a ballot when they are for municipalities or political subdivisions whose elections the Board of Elections is already authorized to conduct. School-district elections are not run by the board of elections, so placing those on a ballot would require state legislation giving the board of elections permission to do that.

“That never happens,” said Bledi, when asked about the possibility of holding two separate elections on Election Day in November — one for the general election and another, in a separate polling place in each district, for any school-bond votes. “That would only serve to confuse voters,” she said.

What would have been

Of the $43 million project defeated on Tuesday, about half — $21.2 million — was to go to security and safety, including fire-alarm, public-address and telephone systems, as well as security cameras and impact-resistant film for glass on exterior doors. Plumbing upgrades and various interior, exterior, and site work would have been done at all seven schools.

Approximately $9.4 million was to go to efficiency, including renovation of heating and ventilation systems at all seven schools and replacement of clock systems and outdated storage systems at four of the five elementary schools.

About $12.1 million was to go to technology, modernizing science and technology labs at the middle and high schools, adding flexible and reconfigurable classroom furniture, and improving wireless infrastructure.

The school board voted, 7 to 1, in September to approve sending the project to voters, with board vice-president Seema Rivera absent, and retired elementary-school teacher Timothy Horan voting against the proposition. At the time, Horan declined to comment about his reasons for voting against the project.

 

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