Record-breaking numbers of voters turned out Tuesday night in Highland to reject the proposed $36.88 million budget, while voting in at least two of the three candidates from the grassroots 60 Percenter group that advocated for greater spending on education.
Although the “yes” votes outnumbered the “no” votes 1,035 to 994, it wasn’t nearly enough to reach the 60 percent majority vote that is required if a school board puts up a budget that increasing the tax levy by more than the state cap.
As for the six-person race for the three available seats on the school board, at least two members of the 60 Percenter group won handedly. Newcomer Debbie Pagano received the highest number of votes, 1,060. She was followed by newcomer Michael Bakatsias with 977 votes. A third candidate could not be declared since only one vote separated current school board President Vincent Rizzi from newcomer Michael Reid. Rizzi had 880 votes and Reid 879.
There were 14 affidavit ballots that need to be brought to the Ulster County Board of Elections to be verified, and if verified, counted to determine who will win that third slot.
Another vote that was too close to call and also separated by one vote was the proposition to purchase a large school bus and a suburban transport vehicle for $155,089. That vote, prior to the affidavits, was also separated by one – 985 people supported the proposition and 984 opposed it.
While the Board of Education will need to make a declaration on both of those votes – Rizzi or Reid, buses or no – the board needs to go back to the table and come up with a second proposed budget by June 4 so that they can hold another vote on June 19, the last date allowed by the state for a second school budget vote.
“We need to go back to the drawing board, and make some difficult decisions,” said school board President Rizzi. “Now it gets critical, because we need to come up with a budget that this community will accept or else we go to a 0 percent tax levy, which would be devastating to our schools.”
According to Superintendent Deborah Haab, if a second budget proposal fails and the budget reverts to a 0 percent increase over last year’s levy, that would result in approximately $2.5 million cut. The 2.27 budget increase over last year’s budget, approximately an $820,000 increase, allowed for several things that were on the chopping block to be put back in: like a full-day kindergarten; smaller elementary class sizes; music and art from kindergarten to 12th grade; foreign language from middle school to high school; advanced placement course; elective courses at the high school; interscholastic sports and extra-curricular clubs. These could all be in jeopardy in both the second budget proposal and even more severe cuts if the budget was voted down a second time and reverted to a 0 percent tax levy increase.
Asked why he thought the voters turned out in such numbers and in opposition to the budget, Rizzi said, “our mistake was that we allowed various groups to come in and convince this board to put up a budget that this community would be against. I think that hurt us (the incumbents) in the election (including himself, Gina Tantillo-Swanson and Heather Welch) because we allowed the community to decide if they wanted this budget and the programs it allowed to continue or not. Many voters were angry at us for allowing this to go forward.”
“The irony in this is that the 60 Percent group got their candidates elected but not the budget they wanted,” said Tantillo-Swanson, who was not re-elected. “But they certainly stirred up people so much that they came out in record numbers to vote down the budget.”
Many of those critics came out of the woodwork at May 8’s public hearing to express their discontent with the budget. With Highland’s budget now failed, it seems many others feel the same way as those who came out asking the board to rethink the 5.12 percent tax levy.
“My question is can anybody here tell me how many houses are for sale in Highland right now? Or, even more serious, how many are in the hands of the bank, are ready for foreclosure and what have you?” said Margaret Malcolm at the public hearing. “If it wasn’t for the tax – the STAR exemption – my house would have a ‘for sale’ sign on it too.”
The senior citizen’s school tax bill last year was $4,247.96.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s almost impossible, if you’re on a fixed income, to plan ahead and keep your head above water,” she said. “I am afraid I am not one of the 60 percent. And believe it or not that does not mean I am not interested in education.”
Malcolm served on the school board in the 1970s. “Times were tough. We had good times. We had bad times. Nobody ever said, ‘if you don’t pass this budget, you’re opposed to education.’ We weren’t opposed to education, and most of the time we passed budgets.”
She added: “I think this board can afford to look over this budget again and find something that’s more reasonable for the taxpayer.”
And that’s just what this board will have to do. Pagano was sworn in on Tuesday night to replace Welch and Bakatsias will be sworn in at the board’s July re-org meeting. The third candidate will be determined by the school board in the next few days.
“It is what it is,” Rizzi said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”
UPDATE: Highland school officials sifted through those affidavit ballots Wednesday afternoon. Those few voters did change the outcome of the election. It is now confirmed that school board President Rizzi lost to 60 Percenter member Mike Reid. Final count: Rizzi got 882 and Reid got 884.
Highland’s bus proposition also passed narrowly. Final count: 990 yes for the buses, 987 no.