By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
After a long Tuesday night and Wednesday morning of counting absentee ballots for the budget vote and trustee election, the Grand Island Central School District announced Wednesday passage of its $64 million 2020-21 school budget.
The budget passed by a 2,932 to 2,028 vote (59% voting “Yes”) with incumbents Sue Marston and Ashli Dreher re-elected to the Board of Education unopposed.
“We are grateful to our community for approving this budget. I think this budget balances the needs of our taxpayers and our students, and it was developed with a fiscally responsible mindset,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Graham Thursday. “Everybody from the board of education, the administrators and supervisors really came together to have a fiscally responsible budget that really meets the needs and provides the best diversified educational program that our students deserve.”
The vote was conducted entirely by absentee ballot after Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 4,960 absentee votes cast on the budget proposition are almost as many votes cast on the budget in the last four years combined.
The vote came at a significantly greater cost to school districts. Graham estimated the cost to the district, not including human resources, at close to $20,000 for the printing of envelopes and ballots, mailing and return postage.
“We’re definitely in favor of the traditional practice of voting in person,” Graham said. “And those who need absentee ballots should absolutely utilize those. But I would say to you that one of our frustrations is that the executive order indicated that we needed to have this process be all absentee ballot on June 9, and then on June 23, the primary voting can be in person and/or absentee ballot. So the frustration is why couldn’t that have all been combined?”
“This process has been pretty intense,” said Graham Thursday upon reflecting on the four-week voting process. He said District Clerk Jude Kuehne and her team of election officials opened up over 5,000 ballots on election night Tuesday starting at 5 p.m. In a typical election, Kuehne said she sends out 150 absentee ballots and receives 30 back. This year, due to Cuomo’s directive to conduct the vote entirely with absentee ballots, the district sent out 16,000.
“Some districts across the state were unable to have printers and vendors provide them with the necessary materials in a timely fashion,” Graham said. “We were all set. We mailed out 15,686 absentee ballots to our community. That was mailed out on May 22. But some districts across the state not necessarily Western New York, but across the state, were just not able to do that in a timely fashion to have access to all of the proper affidavit envelopes and the ballots, so the governor then changed the voting date from June 9 to June 16.
“And then by choosing June 16, that was in the middle of the early voting process for the primaries. So that meant that machines were being used for the early voting process in communities across Erie County, which limited the availability of machines for school districts, which then, fostered the idea of using the one high-speed scanning machine at the board of elections.”
Graham said opening 5,052 ballots took until about 10 p.m. He and Kuehne took the ballots downtown at 11 p.m.
“And all along at the same time across Western New York, districts had appointments to go downtown to the Erie County Board of Elections office to scan their absentee ballots with the high-speed scanning machine that they have there,” Graham said.
“But the machine ended up having some technical difficulties,” Graham said, adding that some WNY districts still did not have vote totals on Thursday.
Kuehne said at the Board of Elections “those employees were phenomenal.” She said one election employee told her they were working “on day 24 of 15 hour days.”
“I’ll tell you that as stressed as they were, they were always very professional, very thorough,” Kuehne said.
Graham said he was “grateful that we had a lot of people take the time to vote. That’s always appreciated, and obviously grateful that in a time of such certainty because of COVID-19 and a pandemic that there’s still tremendous support for the educational program offered our children.”
A preliminary analysis by New York State United Teachers showed 99% of school budgets are on track to win approval by voters, according to returns available Wednesday afternoon.
“Even in challenging times, voters resoundingly made clear that funding public schools at the local level is a top priority,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “Especially in times of crisis, public schools serve as cornerstones of our communities, providing not just an education but also meals, mental health services and other critical services. Students need our support, and voters overwhelmingly delivered.”
NYSUT reviewed 388 school budget votes and found that 383 passed. Five were defeated. More than 95% of budgets have been passed each year since 2013, according to NYSUT, a statewide union with more than 600,000 members in education, human services and health care.