With record-setting participation, voters overwhelmingly approved an estimated 99 percent of schools budgets around the state.
“The results are amazing and show a tremendous level of support for our educators and our schools,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “I believe this pandemic has underscored how schools truly are the center of communities — and voters have clearly shown they’re strongly behind us.”
It was a year like no other, as schools shut down statewide in mid-March and educators suddenly shifted to remote instruction. To help contain the spread of COVID-19, school budget votes and board elections for most districts — outside of the Big Five city districts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Yonkers and New York City — were moved from the third Tuesday in May to June 9. It was the first time districts ever conducted mail-in elections.
It was a tense few weeks with widespread confusion over voter eligibility and filing deadlines. Many districts scrambled to get ballots or envelopes printed and distributed on time. At the last minute, the governor extended the deadline for voters to submit school ballots by one week to June 16.
Despite all the confusion, many districts reported that voter participation tripled and quadrupled — with some reporting up to eight times the usual turnout. In Albany, for example, a record 10,700 residents voted. The district’s average turnout for the last five years was 3,109.
With so many unknowns and budget shortfalls, NYSUT worked hard to get out the vote with online and television ads, printed mailers and fliers. Regional political organizers ran phone banks and outreach efforts all over the state. At the request of local leaders, NYSUT was involved in more district votes and school board races than ever — a 75 percent increase. And thanks to double the usual number of volunteers, NYSUT members made more than 100,000 calls using virtual phone banks.
“Our members were excited to help,” said Smithtown TA President Laura Spencer, whose local union made nearly 10,000 phone calls. Aside from calling NYSUT members who live in the district, union volunteers also called about 6,000 community members seeking support, Spencer said.
In addition to favorable school budget votes, local leaders reported great success electing pro-education school board members, too. Voters also elected nearly two dozen NYSUT members to school board seats, according to union analysts.
Though the resounding community support is welcome, it’s important to keep in mind that school districts proposed largely conservative 2020–21 budgets, with an average spending increase of 1.68 percent. Last year the average statewide spending increase proposed was 2.57 percent.
Statewide, only 15 school districts proposed a 2020–21 property tax levy that exceeded their maximum tax levy limit, meaning they needed to get at least 60 percent voter approval for their budget to be adopted. While most of the overrides succeeded, Dolgeville, Johnstown and Rensselaer budgets were defeated. In Dolgeville and Johnstown, a majority voted yes but both fell short with 57 percent of the vote.
Others defeated included Riverhead, Uniondale, Valley Stream 13 and Cheektowaga, according to early returns. With many districts counting thousands of paper ballots by hand, results were slower than usual. NYSUT will release a complete analysis after the State Education Department reports full summary information.
Normally, districts that fail to pass a budget can try again four weeks later with an amended proposal or the same plan. The governor has indicated revotes will take place at a date to be determined in July.
While local support for public schools is a critical part of ensuring students and educators have the resources they need, NYSUT is continuing to advocate for additional action at both the federal and state levels for much-needed education funding.
In addition to calling for more federal stimulus funding under the HEROES act, NYSUT is part of a coalition urging state lawmakers to approve increased taxes on the ultrawealthy to generate new revenue and avoid painful layoffs and program cuts. If the federal stimulus funding does not come through, Gov. Cuomo has warned there could be midyear state budget cuts.