TRR photo by Susan Wade

The directional sign with the word “CANCELLED” added in ink was the way many Eldred voters learned of the latest twist in the vote for the budget and school board seat.

Second Eldred school vote on June 19

Correction:
This story indicates that BOCES Supertintendent Dr. Robert Dufour sent an email to Eldred Superintendent Dr. John Morgano regarding the position of the New York State Education (DES) on May 15, the day of the vote.  In fact, Dufour sent the email regarding  the DES posture on the vote cancellation to Morgano on May 16, the day after the vote was cancelled.
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ELDRED, NY — A contentious exchange at an emergency school board meeting called on May 17 resulted in an abrupt cessation of the meeting and left those in the audience confused as to what exactly had transpired.

The meeting was held at the request of board member Allyson Wagner. It was to address questions that arose from the early closing of the May 15 election, which was decided by Superintendent Dr. John Morgano. He stated that he stood by his decision to close the election due to the dangerous conditions arising from the fierce windstorm that blew through the area in the mid-afternoon. The storm resulted in the county declaring a state of emergency. The high school, which was the location of the vote, lost electric power as a result of the windstorm, and classes were not held for the remainder of the week because of the outage. Power was restored late Friday evening.

Morgano reiterated that the decision was made after consultation with the Sullivan County Board of Elections and the New York State Education Department as well as the district’s attorneys. Morgano did not speak directly with the attorneys. Rather, he relied on an email communication with them via Robert Dufour, the former Eldred superintendent who now serves as the superintendent of Sullivan County BOCES.

The re-vote will take place on Thursday, June 19. The ballot will contain the original items: school board seat, school budget and library contribution. If the school budget is voted down at this time, a contingency budget will automatically go into effect.

As of press time, Morgano had not returned calls regarding the cost of holding the re-vote.

Although state education law does not expressly address the closing or cancellation of a vote, it does speak to the rescheduling of a vote. The law is silent as to what circumstances would necessitate a rescheduled vote.

Jay Worona, an attorney with the New York State School Boards Association, said that there is no provision in the law or precedent for freezing the vote, to allow the votes that were cast to stand and be included as part of a subsequent vote. It was disclosed at the board meeting that the voting machines had been locked down.

As to whether closing the polls was the right move, Worona said that one’s opinion is formed by what lens the person is looking through. Whether the polls stayed open or were closed, voters might have been disenfranchised. Although a lot of people are judging the actions taken by school districts, in Eldred and other areas, he would not defend nor criticize either action. “It’s not what we know on a calm, sunny day but what they knew at the time.”

On the day of the vote

The vote began on May 15 at 11 a.m. as scheduled, and about 300 voters had cast their ballots when a significant tornado-like storm swept through the area, knocking out power in many areas of the district, including the voting site at the Junior-Senior High School.

The storm blew in at around 3:30 p.m. while elementary school students were being transported home. Some of the routes could not be completed because of downed trees, and the children were eventually returned home through the help of volunteers, family members and teachers.

But it left those in charge with a dilemma. A state of emergency had been declared by the county, so was it acceptable to expect people to venture onto roads officially closed to cast their ballots? Could an election be called less than half-way through the voting time? Either way, a group of voters would be disenfranchised. It was a textbook lose-lose situation.

“The decision was not made lightly,” said Superintendent Dr. John Morgano. The call to cancel the election was ultimately made by Morgano and school board president Carol Bliefernich after reaching out to other board members. Some could not be reached because of loss of phone and cell service.

Before making the call, they consulted with the county board of elections, the state education department and the district’s attorneys. The county board stated that its responsibility was limited to providing the voting machines. The state education department advised that it was a local decision. The attorneys said that if the election were cancelled, the votes already cast would be invalid.

Those who cast their votes on May 15 will need to vote again.

The challenge of how to notify voters of the cancellation left many unhappy. The district utilized the messenger text system, but this connects only with those who have active involvement in the district. Others found out only when they showed up to an empty parking lot and a sign with the word “cancelled” written on a directional sign, by word-of-mouth, or by social media postings. Similarly, one of the challenges to dealing with this unprecedented situation will be how to notify voters of the new date.

On the ballot was the vote on the budget, a seat on the school board and funding for the Sunshine Hall Free Library. Of the three items, only the library budget was without controversy, as the school board seat has been hotly contested and the propriety of the budget, which incorporates $800,000 of cuts, has been the source of much debate. Some believe it has not cut enough or has not cut the proper line items.

Already the most talked-about and controversial school vote in recent memory, this contest’s story line will continue.

 

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