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How COVID-19 is changing school district budget voting

Kyle S. Mackie

It has been a rite of spring in New York State's suburbs and small cities: the annual budget debate and selection of members for the local school board. Usually it includes lines at polling spaces, occasionally contentious budget meetings and debates over education But like everything else, things are different this year.
This year, there are virtual meetings and absentee balloting. Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered a change in the voting date, virtual meetings and the absentee ballots because of New York PAUSE and the COVID-19 crisis.

That brings in the lawyers, making sure everything is being done by the new rules and to help understand those new rules. Lawyer Andrew Freedman said a first sign of the new day is the absentee ballots that will be popping up in resident mailboxes in the next week or so. Freedman said this means districts have to identify who the voters are.

"What a school district needs to do is to be able to identify all qualified voters within its boundaries and send absentee ballots to them," said Freedman, a partner at Hodgson Russ said. "The challenge has been that school districts don't have a list of all qualified voters within a school district, so identifying those individuals has been challenging."

A veteran school district attorney, Freedman said there are some quirks that have to be settled: the college kid who is suddenly back in the house after registering to vote at school or the visiting relatives bunkered down in the house during quarantine. He said both probably meet the 30 days of residence rule of state law to vote on the budget and board members.

Freedman said residents will find out the details of what is happening in their snail mail and email.

"The link for the meeting may be found at whatever website, and the folks click on that link and they attend the meetings and they get to hear the debates," he said, "and even some districts have been sophisticated enough to have real-time questions and answers."

School votes are June 9. Freedman said this might foretell the future of elections.

"Set out the schools as a test case for how do elections look like when done by absentee ballots," he said. "So we're here to set the stage for what might be coming up or is coming up in later June and then also, too, for what might be the elections in November."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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