As if the coronavirus hadn’t done enough to disrupt education in New York, Governor Cuomo has injected even more confusion and uncertainty into the public school budgeting and board selection process across the state.
Cuomo in March issued an executive order invoking his emergency powers during the pandemic to postpone school budget elections originally scheduled by law for May 19. Earlier this month, he ordered that the voting would be done by mail, requiring all 668 affected school districts to take the unprecedented step of suspending in-person voting and instead mailing absentee ballots to voting-age residents. Ballots must be received at district offices by the new official voting day, June 9.
What districts really needed wasn’t just more time but more information. Virtually every school district set its property tax levy under the assumption that state aid won’t drop from levels approved early last month, which in turn would leave total aid at roughly the same $25 billion level as in 2019-20.
But with the state facing a budget shortfall of roughly $8 billion, that’s a risky bet. Cuomo has broad authority to close any budget gap, and school aid is the budget’s biggest item. Many school districts get the majority of their funding from state aid.
So far, Cuomo has focused on demanding federal aid instead of trimming spending. And he’s openly expressed concern that any spending cuts will weaken his argument for a federal bailout.
That has left districts to climb out on a financial limb, mailing out ballots based on the hoped-for aid figure before Congress considers any “stimulus” bill with aid to states and local governments.
Superintendents took a calculated risk, knowing that if they ask for too large a property tax increase, voters will reject them and keep the district’s levy at this year’s level. About 13 districts will be asking for permission to exceed the property tax cap, meaning 60 percent of voters must consent.
And school superintendents face a wildly different electorate this year.
Who gets a ballot–and what will they do with it?
Cuomo’s May 1 executive order instructed districts to mail ballots to every “qualified voter.” The problem? There’s no such list. Any adult becomes a “qualified voter” in a school election after 30 days at his or her address, with few exceptions.
News reports from around the state indicate most districts mailed ballots to each person registered (in local, state, and federal elections) through the county boards of elections. But in some cases, district officials sent ballots on a one-per-household basis, with the option to request more.
The likely turnout is anyone’s guess. As of early May, just 55 percent of New York households had completed the 2020 federal census sent to them about a month earlier–despite a considerable effort to promote it.
In the eight school voting years since Cuomo’s property tax levy cap took effect, the approval rate for school budgets has recently climbed to record highs, with 98.4 percent of budgets passing last year. But turnout has dropped: just under 525,000 votes were tallied in 2019, after hitting a record low of about 505,000 in 2018. By comparison, about 8 million adults live outside New York’s five largest cities. Most people who receive a ballot will likely have never voted in a school election.
The governor’s handling of the school budget process reflects a disregard for the challenges it would create at the local level. And it has highlighted the downsides of handing an executive sweeping power to override legislation.
School districts will ultimately muddle through these elections. But the longer Cuomo postpones inevitable school aid cuts, the less time superintendents will have to react. And state lawmakers and the governor have done nothing to make things easier: most school districts remain on the hook to give raises to unionized teachers and staff on July 1–and they’ll have less money to pay them.