Public school education costs Long Island taxpayers a lot, whether they live in a high-performing district or not. That investment should be decided by as many voters as possible, through a process that is open-eyed and easy to understand.
Too often, big-ticket spending by Long Island schools has been approved through offseason “special referendums” — where few come out to vote and major expenses involving long-term borrowing are approved — that many simply don’t know about. A new report by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-area think tank, shows this system lacks the kind of openness that such heavy-duty spending demands. These referendums are scheduled at various times — usually outside of November general elections and even May school board and budget votes — resulting in very low turnout.
Since 2011, Nassau and Suffolk school districts have held more than 70 of these special local votes, approving a total of nearly $1.4 billion in spending. Statewide during this same time period, more than 400 referendums took place, resulting in $9 billion in spending.
To be sure, many of these projects — such as building repairs and capital improvements like extra classrooms — are needed and the spending is justified. But the circuitous method of “special referendums” lets those who want to spend millions in taxpayer funds dodge the kind of public scrutiny that should be an essential part of the decision-making process. While May votes generally have a low turnout rate of about 10%, turnout for these offseason votes was about half that, according to Ken Girardin, the center’s research director, since voters have little awareness of when they take place.
School district officials say the referendums are conducted openly and that under the law, they must publish legal notices four times in advance of the vote. But Center researchers had to “scour” news accounts and school board minutes to find evidence of these votes occurring. They also discovered state education officials don’t keep track of these special referendums, even when approved spending involves state funding as well as local property taxes.
Basic remedies are needed here. The Empire Center recommends the State Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul pass a measure that mandates school referendums that involve borrowing be placed on the ballot for either the regular May school board elections or the November general elections. That would ensure greater public scrutiny of this spending. So would mandating that information about the referendum be sent to every district household.
Residents must do their part and vote on these expenses rather than complain they can’t do anything about rising taxes. Some projects are worth every dime in terms of ensuring the quality of public education on Long Island, and some aren’t. But voters must be informed to understand the difference and then act on that information.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.