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More than 100 school budgets pass, three fail from mail-in ballots

School district budgets and board elections were done

School district budgets and board elections were done by mail-in balloting this year because of the coronavirus. Credit: Newsday

School districts across Long Island reported 103 budgets passed and three failed, as more than a dozen other systems continued tallying what they described as a flood of mail-in ballots.

Uniondale's $211 million budget was reported defeated 1,157 to 885 by voters. The district, in a statement, thanked its approximately 2,000 voters for their participation, expressed disappointment at results, and indicated the possibility of a July revote.

"For now, our focus will be on planning for the new school year and, with great expectation and anticipation, the return of our scholars to our classrooms in the fall," the statement continued. 

Riverhead's $147.1 million budget went down 3,173 to 2,847. In Valley Stream 13, a $55.3 million plan lost 1,522 to 1,353.

Islandwide, approvals of spending plans were often by lopsided margins. Voter passages were reported from Amagansett, Bridgehampton and Fishers Island in the east, to Carle Place, Malverne and Valley Stream 24 in the west.

The reported results from Tuesday night and Wednesday were a happy surprise for many school officials, who had worried, before counting began, that an outpouring of absentee ballots might signal voter discontent. The fact that all voting was by mail-in ballot this year because of the coronavirus meant a slower count than usual, with 18 districts not yet reported. 

Officials in the Plainview-Old Bethpage district tallied 5,527 mail-in ballots, far more than double the count in past years. The district's $164.2 million budget passed 3,929 to 1,598. The system's superintendent, Lorna Lewis, expressed gratification with results both locally and regionwide. 

"What I'm hearing is that people are resoundingly supportive of public schools," said Lewis, who is immediate past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. "That is heartwarming for me."

New York State United Teachers, a statewide union umbrella group, released preliminary and partial figures Wednesday, suggesting that 99% of budgets across the state were on track for approval. 

In past years, districts that experienced budget defeats by voters tended to report results later than districts that succeeded. So, results thus far, while encouraging, are not necessarily definitive.

The Wyandanch school district, which sought extra money to preserve its sports programs, reported Wednesday morning that it had mustered a 60% voter majority needed to override its state tax-cap restriction and pass a $71.7 million budget with a 3.3% tax hike.

The district's acting superintendent, Gina Talbert, in a letter to residents, thanked them for their support, declaring, "We know that we are not out of the woods just yet; we need to continue increasing student achievement, including graduation rate, providing opportunities for students to engage in advanced coursework, not just at the high school level but across all grades and most importantly, develop civic-minded curriculum that engages, empowers and mobilizes students."

Wainscott on the East End overcame its cap for the second year in a row, winning approval of a $3.7 million budget with a 12.71% tax increase.

David Eagan, president of Wainscott's school board, said Tuesday night that this would probably be the last time the district would seek to bust its cap, unless local housing growth exceeded expectations. 

"I just want to express our gratitude to taxpayers for understanding the situation we're in," Eagan said. 

Elsewhere across the Island, district elections have been marked by confusion and uncertainty over a revamped voting system and state education funding.

Many districts reported a dramatic upsurge in voting, with a few adding that their ballot count could stretch into Thursday. Under a state directive, about 2 million absentee ballots were sent out on the Island alone, as part of efforts to safeguard public health during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

South Huntington reported that 5,695 ballots had poured into the district office. During the past five years, the number of ballots averaged 1,464 annually, mostly from residents who came to the polls in person, district clerk Laura McLean said. The budget passed Tuesday night. 

Roslyn reported receiving about 2,600 votes, three or four times the usual number, and the $115.3 million budget easily passed. Joseph Dragone, the district's assistant superintendent for business and administration, told Newsday that regional results so far "exceeded my expectations."

The region's 124 districts were calling for nearly $13.4 billion in spending during the 2020-21 school term, but that figure could drop. Albany has announced it may have cut back on state aid to schools, due to falling revenues triggered by the coronavirus.

School board candidates also have felt the impact, through curtailment of public rallies and door-to-door electioneering. More than 380 candidates are running this year, with contested seats in dozens of districts including Hempstead, Port Washington, Westbury, Brentwood, Huntington and Riverhead.

Islandwide, proposed spending would rise 1.8% next year, the lowest increase in five years. Taxation would go up 2.1%, the lowest increase in three years.

Any districts failing to win majority approval for their budgets can hold revotes, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ruled. The most likely revote dates are either July 21 or July 28, according to school representatives. Any systems failing to win in the second round essentially face tax freezes next year. 

Ballots have been mailed to virtually all the region's registered voters, which evidently encouraged participation by making the process more convenient.

"I tell everybody that the shortest time you'll ever face in voting is at the breakfast table," said Jim Scheuerman, a commissioner at the Nassau County Board of Elections.

On the other hand, some voters voiced wariness over a requirement that they sign one of the envelopes used in returning ballots to district offices.

Elections analysts said signatures are essential for voter verification, and that ballots are separated from envelopes before tallies begin. Skeptics responded that there is no absolute guarantee of secrecy.

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