The random timing of school bond votes in New York has riled taxpayers and good government advocates as communities across Long Island in recent months have voted on multimillion-dollar borrowing projects.
Bond votes can occur at any time during the year, according to state law. For example, Middle Country voted in November, Manhasset voted in December, and West Babylon voted in January. Tuesday, voters in Port Washington are to decide a $70 million proposal.
Taxpayers and single-election advocates argue all districts should set bond votes in May, when elections are held for operating budgets and school board members. Winter votes put millions of dollars before voters who may not be paying attention to school finances, they say, adding that the winter votes occur when many seniors, considered more likely to veto spending, are away.
"What will impact taxpayers and voters for years, if not decades to come, with debt service should be conducted with the most transparency and light of day," said Lauren George, associate director of Common Cause NY, a good government nonprofit. "There should clearly be reform that requires bond votes -- especially for such large amounts -- be done with the utmost transparency and with the rest of the budget decision-making."
School officials argue bond proposals must be voted on before the May elections. They need the time after a bond is approved to develop construction projects, receive state approval, and seek developers through a public bidding process that takes months. Approving capital projects before the May budget vote allows districts to more efficiently plan their operating budgets, officials say.
Middle Country School District voters in November approved a $125 million bond proposal. In September, voters in Lindenhurst passed a $9 million bond. In December, Manhasset voters approved a $20 million bond and in Plainview-Old Bethpage, voters approved a $50 million bond. Also in December, voters in the Center Moriches school district rejected a pair of bond referendums of up to almost $20 million. Voters in West Babylon and Shoreham-Wading River in January approved borrowing more than $60 million in total.In Port Washington, the bond money would be used to upgrade facilities, security and technology, including renovating science labs, auditoriums and athletic fields, and adding air conditioning to the district's seven schools.
A panel discussion on the merits of the proposal raised the issue of voting in May. "Why don't they wait until May 19 when we vote on the budget?" asked Frank J. Russo Jr., president of the taxpayer group Port Washington Educational Assembly. "They want lower turnouts."
Long Island school officials say separate votes work better.
"The issue really is being able to put together a budget for the community's approval in May, and most often, bond issues have an impact on the coming year's budget," said Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association.
Holding the votes separately is "more transparent because the community's entire focus can be on the bond," said Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.
The timing of Tuesday's Port Washington vote "is unfortunate," board president Karen Sloan said. But she added that if the proposal is rejected, officials will need time to rework the operating budget.
Port Washington school board member Alan Baer said the approval and planning process could take 15 to 20 months, so holding the vote in March, instead of May, could make the difference in being able to start construction in summer 2016.
But Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director for the New York State League of Women Voters, said school bond votes "should be done at an appropriate time when the greatest voter turnout is anticipated," either with the other school elections in May or the general election in November.
"If you're voting for use of taxpayer dollars, then probably it should be when you expect your turnout to include all of your taxpayers," she said. "And that wouldn't be in the middle of February when a lot of people would be gone."