Voter Apathy Puts PV School Budget at Risk

Voter Apathy Puts PV School Budget at Risk
Credit: Putnam Valley Central School District

An important decision is looming for many residents of Putnam Valley. Will they choose to vote in an important upcoming election that could have major implications for the state of their community or will they stay home?

On May 21st, the town's school district will hold an election about next year's school budget as well as two positions on the board of trustees, which oversees the Putnam Valley Central School District. To state the obvious, all registered voters who live in the school district are eligible to vote, not just those with children in the school.

Last year only 18.9% of the school district's voters went to the polls, and only 54% of them voted to approve the school budget. Astonishingly, only 25.5% of parents with children in the schools bothered to vote at all. By contrast, last year's school budgets in the mid-Hudson region as well as the entire state passed with more than 73% of the vote. "Our budget passing percentage remains on a razor’s edge," Superintendent Jeremy Luft lamented at the March 21st school board meeting.

Source: Putnam Valley Central School District

Last year's near-miss is making the school board and the administration nervous. The administration has held information sessions to try to gain support, but they have been sparsely attended. If the budget fails to win approval and, after being re-submitted, fails a second time, next year's budget would revert to last year's level. That would result in a cut of more than $1 million, necessitating reductions in teachers and after-school programs and increases in class size.

At the recent board meeting, trustees expressed strong support for the proposed budget, which assumes a 2.56% increase in school taxes, just squeaking under the district's 2.59% state-mandated cap. In developing this year's budget, the district's director of business administration cited a 5% increase in health insurance premiums, an estimated 40% increase in transportation costs, a 16% increase in property insurance premiums, and salary increases resulting from the most recent union contract. To stay under the tax cap, the district proposes to draw $399,000 from its $2.3 million unrestricted reserve.*

Given the general inflationary environment and the fact that school taxes dwarf the town's property taxes, any increase in the school tax is likely to meet resistance. As Trustee Janette Yetter pointed out at the board meeting, the school budget is the only opportunity residents have to register their dismay about ever-rising taxes, since they cannot vote directly on town, county, state or federal budgets. "That 'no' vote will be there, guaranteed," said Trustee Sam Oliverio Jr. "If you wish the budget to pass, you have to counter that 'no' vote.”

This year's budget process is further complicated by two other propositions that voters will also be asked to weigh in on. One allows the district to create a new reserve fund for up to $10 million. The current reserve fund, which is mostly used to smooth out spending on large capital projects, is nearing the end of its mandated ten-year life. Dr. Luft hopes voters won't misunderstand and think the district is trying to increase the budget by $10 million. The second proposition would give the district permission to add $1 million in financing to bring transportation costs in-house, if it turns out it would be cheaper than continuing to outsource them. "I don’t want people to be scared by seeing dollars in the descriptions, because it’s really about permission, not money," said Dr. Luft. "Both propositions have a net budget impact of zero dollars."

Dr. Jeremy Luft, Superintendent

Putnam Valley's school district appears to be doing a better job managing its rising costs than some nearby towns. Carmel's school district was shocked to learn in February of a potential budget shortfall of over $6 million and has even considered eliminating kindergarten and closing one of its three elementary schools to address it. Two years ago, Garrison was unable to stay under its tax cap and only won permission from voters on its second try by promising to limit the tax increase to 6.6%; this year, it is proposing a 4.4% tax increase.

At the school board meeting, Trustee Crystal Hernandez, a Peekskill school administrator with three children in the Putnam Valley district, expressed concern that there were a lower number of parents voting last year than non-parents. "We need to start considering what the implications of not voting could be," she said. Whether they are for or against, she said, "people need to come out and vote." Hernandez wants to launch an "each one, reach one" campaign to encourage parents to bring another voter with them when they go to the polls. "If we start cutting programs, no one is going to want to move to Putnam Valley," Hernandez said. She echoed the prevailing sentiment that night that a community that invests in its schools is a community that enjoys strong property values.

In general, Putnam Valley's school district seems to enjoy a favorable reputation for its rich curriculum, dedicated teachers and staff, and stable management. After Garrison added Putnam Valley's high school last year to the list of options its graduating middle school students can choose from, nearly 20% are expected to attend Putnam Valley rather than alternatives in Cold Spring and Highland Falls. The Garrison students' arrival this fall could add about $150,000 to Putnam Valley's tuition revenue.

With so much focus on the budget, little attention has been given to the two seats on the board that are up for election. The deadline for candidates to submit their names for consideration is 5 p.m. on Monday, April 22nd. Once the complete line-up is known, a follow-up story will outline candidates' views on school issues.

For those able to vote in person on May 21st, polls will be open at the elementary school at 171 Oscawana Lake Rd. from 6am until 9pm. Obtaining absentee and early mail-in ballots is a somewhat cumbersome two-step process that begins April 22nd and is overseen by District Clerk Maureen Bellino. Details can be found here.

Not all Putnam Valley residents are eligible to vote in this election. About 14% of the town's registered voters live in one of five other school districts that overlap those of nearby towns, boundaries that reflect an era when children walked to school. Those who are unsure if they are eligible can contact Ms. Bellino and, if they are homeowners, their school district is identified on their tax bill.

In 2005, the school budget passed by just one vote. On the night of May 21st, we'll learn just how razor thin this year's vote proves to be.

*The original story stated that the reserve was $1.1 million; it should have stated that the drawdown was from the district's $2.3 million unrestricted reserve.

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