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Will school budget votes, elections fall victim to coronavirus? No one knows

Superintendents are planning school budgets for next year without knowing if aid will be cut midway through the year.

At the same time, school board candidates can't go door to door to get signatures on petitions. Nor do they know when to hand them in, because no one knows when the election will be, or whether it will be in person or by mail-in ballots.

When it comes to education, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only sent students home to learn, it has upended the annual budget and election rituals.

There's even talk that there will not be public votes on budgets and candidates this year.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo postponed the school budget votes and board elections until at least June 1, and schools around the state are waiting for more guidance.

The speculation goes like this: Because of the pandemic crisis and the desire to eliminate large gatherings, all school budgets that are approved by school boards would become the 2020-21 budget without the previously required approval of the community.

As for the selection of school board members, the election would be canceled, and all current school board members would serve an extra year.

There are a lot of ideas out there, said David Albert, a spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association. He said the association is in close contact with the governor's office.

"I don’t know if anybody will be ready to conduct a vote in person by June," he said. "There really is a lack of clarity right now on budget votes and board elections and even school district budgets."

Superintendents and teachers have heard the conjecture, but it's not known if the drastic step of canceling the vote will come to pass.

"I’ve heard that as one possibility, but I haven’t heard anything lately that speaks to that actually happening," Williamsville Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff said. "It's actually, in a way, the simplest way to fix it for a year, just to say 'Here’s how we’re doing it for one year,' given all the illness and concerns for social distancing."

Most school budgets get approved by voters every year, and the adoption rate has risen since the state's tax cap was established in 2011. Last May, residents in 675 school districts across the state voted on budgets. All but 12 were adopted on the first vote, according to the School Boards Association.

The votes had been scheduled for May 19. Next year's school district budgets start July 1.

There are certain time requirements school districts must follow in notifying the public about elections. The first budget notice is to be in the newspaper 45 days before the election, and nominating petitions from candidates are due 30 days before the election, said West Seneca District Clerk Nicole C. Latza. She can't finalize the ballot until she knows who the candidates are, and that won't be known until there is a date for the election.

"Is it going to be in June, is going to be in July?" she said. "I like to have things in order. Not knowing is killing me, but I get it."

Meanwhile, while some school boards, like West Seneca Central, have already adopted a budget, many are waiting until after the governor's first "measurement period" ends April 30. The State Legislature gave the governor unprecedented powers to examine revenues and determine if the state budget is balanced during four measurement periods. If it is not, the governor has the authority, through his budget director, to reduce expenses, which could include cutting school aid in the middle of the school year.

Williamsville is still working on its budget, something that normally would be about done by now, but the board is not going to vote on it next week like it had planned earlier in the year.

"We're taking a wait-and-see approach," Martzloff said.

There are some initiatives he is not recommending the district undertake because of the uncertainty, including reducing elementary class sizes and increasing math instruction in the high schools.

"We can't predict what is going to happen in each of the governor's so-called measurement periods," Martzloff said. "Given that, it makes the most sense to find ways to save between now and a year from now."

Hamburg Superintendent Michael Cornell said the Hamburg School Board used the usual priorities in putting together the budget: preserve programs, build in flexibility to manage the budget and treat taxpayer money with respect.

"Now we wait until we find out if there needs to be further cuts as a result of the measurement period," Cornell said. "We also wait to see if there is going to be an impact on school districts and local governments based on any federal relief that may come our way."

He doesn't know yet when the board will adopt the budget.

Cleveland Hill School Board members plan to pass the budget Wednesday, as originally planned. But it will look different. The district had planned to set up an additional special education classroom in the district, and wanted to hire more cleaning staff, but those did not make the cut in the wake of the pandemic.

"We really don't see that things are going to get any better, and we're preparing for the worst," Superintendent Jon MacSwan said.

The district is saving some money during the shutdown by not having to pay its outside contractor for busing students, but that will be offset next year by a lower state reimbursement for transportation, said Business Administrator Carolyn Robertson. Any savings by not hiring substitutes or a spending freeze this year will help with next year's budget, she said, adding that any cuts that may have to be made over the next year will try to avoid staffing.

"It’s a confusing situation," Albert said. "But there’s nothing you can really do about it."

Coronavirus outbreak coverage

correction: April 20, 2020

A capital project for new roofs and security improvements will be on the ballot for Williamsville Central School District residents during this year’s annual school budget vote. A story in Monday’s edition was incorrect in describing the ballot measures.

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