EDITORIAL: Time to vote smart

SCHOOL DISTRICT ELECTION reminders are a spring ritual for this newspaper and others. After a while you get the sense that one paper’s stories on budgets or candidates could easily be swapped with those of a different paper, with no one being the wiser.

Editorial writers I’ve known wouldn’t do something like that for fear readers might prefer the other paper’s writer. And this year it wouldn’t work because everything is so different. Or is it?

Let’s start with voting. You’re planning to go to the polls for your school district election, right? Wrong! By executive order of the governor, everyone who votes in the June 9 school budget referendum in all of the 732 public school districts around the state has to vote by absentee ballot. If you live in Columbia County you should already have received an absentee ballot and a postage-paid return envelope from the school district where you live.

Well, you’ve got plenty of time to get it in, don’t you? No! The ballot has to be received by your school district clerk by 5 p.m. on June 9.

Absentee voting is not meant to suppress voter turnout. Just the opposite. It eliminates the chance that voters like you and me will be exposed to Covid-19 as we exercise our right to vote. It also protects the people who would have been poll watchers. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to live long enough to vote in a few more elections. This is a good way to improve the odds.

You don’t need an excuse to vote by absentee ballot. In New York State living in a pandemic is reason enough.

Voters in all six public school districts in the county will determine whether to approve an annual school district budget for the new school year. But when schools reopen the school day will be unlike any school grownups would remember. Let’s hope students adapt quickly to required hand washing, social distancing and the new ways of learning the virus has forced on them. That goes for teachers and administrators too. They’re reinventing public education on a daily basis. Talk about essential workers.

Our next generations of scientists, caregivers, artists, entrepreneurs, teachers and people with skills we can only imagine will return to these schools when they reopen. Whatever they’ll become, the costs to educate this new generation haven’t gone down because a coronavirus lurks. Just the opposite. But keep in mind that the school budgets of this county, taken together, will pump $191 million into the local economy in the next year. That’s a stimulus that meets a need.

State aid to county school districts is the second largest source of money for public education. This year’s aid payments were calculated last winter, when Covid-19 had not yet been detected in the U.S. Since then, the costs of responding to the virus and the economic lockdown have squeezed the state budget. Governor Cuomo has not hesitated to request financial assistance from the federal government, but we’ve received only a small part of what this state needs to recover from the financial costs of the pandemic.

If there is no more help from Washington, the legislature has given the governor the authority to cut school aid by as much as 20%. This year that would not cripple local districts, but it does hint at greater struggles ahead. It also serves as a reminder that the delays caused by the virus have left no opportunity for a do-over budget. If the first vote fails to win majority approval in any of the districts, that district must adopt a “contingency budget.” That keeps the district’s spending at the same level as the current year, but with no extracurricular activities or athletics. And it will hardly save taxpayers any money at all.

This year’s school board elections are more important than ever. All of six districts in the county have kept their spending within the limit of the state’s tax levy cap (roughly 2%), without cutting academic programs. Now it’s our part as voters to support their hard work.

Peddlers of racism, disinformation, ignorance and hate have never had more tools to prey on our children. If we’re to have a future, it will depend on educated people. The time to teach the next generation is now and the key accomplishing this task is adequate funding our public schools. Vote for school budgets June 9.

Here are links to the budget/election website pages of school districts in Columbia County:

Chatham

Germantown

Hudson

Ichabod Crane

New Lebanon

Taconic Hills

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