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School districts deal with a challenging year for budget votes

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Voting on school budgets and board candidates in this year's election has undergone a number of changes due to the coronavirus.

Some area school officials are worried that confusion about the process could affect the outcome of budget votes.

Normally, voting would occur in May with the results known soon after ballots were cast. But, COVID-19 has changed shool budget voting with Governor Andrew Cuomo ordering school budget and board candidate voting to be done only by absentee ballot.

The deadline was extended last weekend so that votes could be hand delivered to school districts by 5 p.m. Tuesday, June 9,  or received in the mail at school districts by June 16.

Sherry Johnson, Executive Director of the Monroe County School Boards Association, is worried that confusion over the voting process may be one factor that could put voters in a negative mood when they cast ballots for school budgets.

“I think there’s a concern that frustration, a lot of that frustration, not just related to the budget but a lot of the frustration that our community is feeling right now because of the pressures they’ve been under, may come out in a budget vote,” Johnson said.

She also noted that districts are concerned that even if their budget passes, they will face additional financial pressures during the school year if Cuomo has to scale back school aid.

“Unless we can either get him to borrow more money or the federal government to fill in with more money, there is an expectation that there will be more cuts, and (to) the extent the school districts are trying to keep this away from direct hits to programming, there won’t be that ability if we continue this,” Johnson said.

It's also been difficult for districts to get information about their budgets to taxpayers, since they have not been able to hold in-person budget hearings.

With an all-absentee ballot election, it is possible that some districts may not have budget and school board results on the night of June 16, because of the labor-intensive process of counting up the absentee votes. 

Johnson also noted that with the later than usual voting on budgets, it will be difficult for districts to come up with revamped budget plans if those budgets are rejected by voters, and they may need to go directly to contingency budgets, which are usually bare-boned spending plans. She said one option may be to see if the state would allow districts to shift their fiscal years to help with the timing of any potential re-votes, since the fiscal year for school districts normally begin July 1.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.