Superintendent Don Murphy, left, and Assistant Superintendent Timothy McCarthy outside Hauppauge...

Superintendent Don Murphy, left, and Assistant Superintendent Timothy McCarthy outside Hauppauge High School on Nov. 30. Credit: James Carbone

Since 2011, school districts on Long Island and statewide have used special offseason elections more than 400 times to approve nearly $9 billion in spending, mostly through bond borrowing, a review by a nonprofit advocacy group has found.

In the Nassau-Suffolk region, districts have held more than 70 of these special local votes over the past dozen years and approved nearly $1.4 billion in spending, according to data collected by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-area think tank, and provided to Newsday.

Under state law, school systems can schedule referendums on bond propositions at any time of the year, not just during regular school elections in May. Typically, the money borrowed with voter approval is spent on school construction or renovation not covered by annual district budgets. 

This approach is controversial, with some calling it "undemocratic" because voting may be held during periods when many voters are away from home on vacation or otherwise preoccupied. School representatives insist, on the other hand, that voting schedules must be flexible — for example, by allowing for referendums in December when districts often are preparing for summertime repairs.


  • Nearly $9 billion in school spending has been approved in hundreds of special offseason referendums on Long Island and statewide since 2011.
  • Hauppauge and Wyandanch will vote this month on propositions totaling $58.2 million and $46.1 million, respectively. Wyandanch’s plan includes a new early childhood center.
  • Offseason votes, known as “special meeting” elections, have raised questions about whether they are “undemocratic,” or essential tools providing fiscal flexibility.

At least two Island districts, Hauppauge and Wyandanch, have scheduled balloting this month. Hauppauge will hold its vote Tuesday on a $58.2 million proposal that would upgrade all five of its schools. Wyandanch's vote on a $46.1 million proposition is coming up Dec. 12, and would provide for construction of a 16-classroom early childhood center. 

"We are badly in need of this space," said Jarod Morris, president of Wyandanch's school board. 

Morris said  248 local children attend classes in rented space outside the district, with a lease due to expire at the end of this school year.

Wyandanch plans to house its youngest students in portable classrooms temporarily, but move them to the new center as soon as it is built. Completion is scheduled for September 2026. Some money from the Dec. 12 proposition also would be used to bring existing school buildings up to code with elevators and other facilities for those with physical disabilities. 

District officials said that planned work will not raise taxes, because it will be covered by state aid and reserve funds already on hand.

In Hauppauge, much of the proposed spending would go to upgrades at the high school, including a renovated science-research room, broadcast studio and outdoor instructional areas. Aging athletic facilities would be updated, and all five of the district's schools would see improvements in terms of safety and security, according to the district. 

Costs of Hauppauge's bond issue to taxpayers would amount to an additional $15 per year for every $100,000 in home value, the district estimated. 

"Our driving idea was to create conditions in which our students could thrive and reach their full potential," Superintendent Don Murphy said.

'Special meetings' hard to track

"Special meeting" elections, as the offseason votes are known, are not easy to track. Researchers at the Empire Center, which is nonprofit and fiscally conservative, noted that such elections are not monitored by the state and that they had to "scour" news accounts, board minutes and other records in order to collect data. 

Researchers also reported that voter turnout was exceptionally low, routinely drawing less than 5% of eligible citizens for local referendums across the state. Votes were described as fiscally significant, because any increases in property taxes generated by voter-approved bond issues are not subject to restrictions imposed by the state's tax-cap law.

Furthermore, researchers said, state rules have created a situation in which districts that fail to pass a bond issue on a first try often put up the same or similar proposition again and again.

"Arbitrarily scheduled, low-turnout special votes are a disservice to the democratic process that state officials should restrict or eliminate," the Empire Center's report concluded.

Entitled "Big Choices, Few Voices," the report was issued in October by a team headed by Ken Girardin, the center's research director. 

A taxpayer advocate, Andrea Vecchio, agreed with the center's findings. 

"One day, taxpayers are going to wake up and realize what's been done to them," said Vecchio, a founder of Long Islanders for Educational Reform, which is a regional advocacy group.

Districts say the public is informed

School representatives contend, on the other hand, that special elections are an open process, with ample public notification. Districts, under law, must publish legal notices four times in advance of votes, with the earliest published at least 45 days prior.

In addition, many districts hold multiple public meetings to go over details of bond propositions. Hauppauge, for example, scheduled six public presentations for PTA groups and broader audiences between Oct. 19 and Nov. 29.

A regional authority on school finance, Joseph Dragone, said that small voter turnouts do not necessarily work to districts' advantage. 

"The fact that 'low turnout' allows a proposition to pass with a smaller number of proponents also means, of course, that it can fail with a smaller number of opponents coming to the voting booth," said Dragone, a retired school business administrator and an adjunct professor at Hofstra University. "I fail to understand the argument that this is somehow 'undemocratic.' "

Educator groups also noted that, on most levels of government, spending initiatives are approved by elected representatives, not voters themselves. 

"School districts take great pride in being one of the very few levels of government in New York State to have their spending voted directly upon by the public," said Brian Fessler, director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association.

Latest videos

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months