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State: LI school district's voting results 'under review'

Residents at the Eastport-South Manor school board meeting

Residents at the Eastport-South Manor school board meeting on April 17. Photo Credit: Andrew Theodorakis

State authorities have posted notice that they are reviewing election results in the Eastport-South Manor school district, where a $96.5 million budget was reported approved last month by local voters under an unusual balloting arrangement. 

Eastport-South Manor administrators responded Monday that the voting procedure was proper, so far as they knew. Several regional school leaders expressed concern over the situation, saying it reflected broader flaws in the state's school elections system.

Eastport-South Manor's voting tallies were flagged on Thursday by the state Education Department, with a notation stating that data were "under review." The announcement came with the release of statewide voting results, showing that spending plans passed in 664 districts and failed in only 11.

The notation included no explanation for the data review, and state officials declined to comment later on grounds the review could become part of a semi-judicial proceeding. 

When polls closed the night of May 21, Eastport-South Manor officials announced that their spending plan won approval by 1,211 yes votes to 1,002 no. Tim Laube, the system's assistant superintendent for business and operations, voiced satisfaction at the time that passage would allow for extra student services, including the hiring of several teachers to reduce class sizes. 

On Thursday, the Education Department reiterated Eastport-South Manor's report that its budget had passed. However, the state agency also highlighted the district's data in red, to show they were under review — the same marking system applied to the 11 systems where budgets failed.

Joe Steimel, Eastport-South Manor's acting superintendent, said Monday in a phone interview that the district was unaware it had been flagged until last week, and had not been able to reach Albany officials to obtain an explanation.

"Once we saw we were in the red, we called the state Education Department, and we have not heard back," said Steimel, who was appointed acting schools chief April 29. "As far as we know, we followed state regulations in voting procedure and tally."

The Eastport-South Manor system, which enrolls about 3,200 students, has struggled financially for years. The district's current troubles stem from efforts to deal with the state's tax-cap law, which imposes annual limits on hikes in taxation. 

Eastport-South's budget fell just within its 2.75 percent cap limit. However, a separate proposition sought by local residents to hire armed security guards would have pushed the district over its cap. 

Under law, districts seeking to override caps must obtain voter "supermajorities" of at least 60 percent. Eastport-South Manor administrators contended their ballot was worded in such a way that, if the armed-guards proposition failed, the budget would need only a simple majority to pass. 

 That raised questions across the region because, in past years, three other districts dealt with similar circumstances — but on the assumption that their budgets could not pass unless they received 60-percent majorities. In those cases, the districts' ballots included separate propositions, initiated by local residents, to expand bus transportation, which also would have busted their caps. 

State regulations make it clear, in such cases, that supermajorities are needed to pass budgets. Those rules do not mention armed guards specifically. 

Many education leaders contend the cap law needs to be clarified. One expert on school finance, Joseph Dragone, also noted that the system could put districts such as Eastport-South Manor in a time bind. Tuesday is the deadline under state law for districts to approve revised budgets, if they want to hold revotes on June 18. 

If the state rules an initial budget vote invalid, a district's only recourse would be to hold a revote or adopt a "contingency" budget that could require deep spending cuts, Dragone noted.

Dragone, who is Roslyn's assistant superintendent for business and administration, said he hoped the Education Department would show flexibility on deadlines, should that become necessary.

"It would be a terrible unintended consequence, if the result of the process forced a district to adopt a contingency budget and cut millions of dollars from a tax-compliant budget approved by a majority of voters," Dragone said.

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