By Dr. Paul Padalino
The year 2008 represented a landmark year for politics. Regardless of political affiliation, pundits were amazed to see nearly 10 million more voters pouring into the polls to cast their ballots than during the 2004 presidential election. The largest voter turnout in 40 years, 131 million Americans exercised their right to vote.
It was also a significant year for voters in the Kingston City School District. Out of the 31,395 active voters who reside in our District and are eligible to vote, 23,541 felt it was important to voice their opinion about who would become the next President of the United States.
That same year, the proposed budget for Kingston City School District was turned down by voters in May. The number of voters was 5,312, and the proposed budget was defeated by a margin of 320 votes, or by about 1 percent of the active voters in our district. This truly shows that every vote does count!
New York State requires school districts to hold elections and budget votes on the second Tuesday in May each year. Unfortunately, the voter apathy evident in the Kingston City School District isn’t unique. According to a 2006 study by the Local Government Education Committee, a municipal training organization, roughly 14 percent of voters statewide participated in school elections in May of 2006. Last year, 4,197 voters cast their ballots in our school district budget vote and board of education elections. That’s just 13 percent of our district’s active voters.
In Kingston, like school districts across the state, voter turnout is chronically low, which begs the question: are school elections a meaningful democratic process?
Voter turnout tends to be higher in areas of the country in which school elections are held during November, along with other political races. In fact, this valid point was made by one of the community members who attended one of our four school district budget forums. Unfortunately, as with other mandates from New York State, we can change, but our immediate control over this issue is limited.
So what can we control? For one, the district can do a better job of engaging the public in a year-round conversation about education related issues and priorities.
This year, I am proud to say we involved the public in new ways during the school budget development process. For the first time in recent history, we rotated the location of our budget forums throughout different school buildings in our community, instead of just one location. We also began live-streaming our budget meetings and budget forums. The events were broadcast on local public access Channel 20, with the videos archived and available for playback on our website. We established “Setting the Record Straight,” an avenue for people to submit anonymous questions to the district and get answers to questions they had. We conducted an online poll about the budget priorities of the community, and were grateful to receive over 800 responses to that questionnaire.
I am currently in the process in evaluating the effectiveness of these efforts, with the goal of continually improving my communication with the community.
As I have been superintendent for only four months, I consider these efforts to be just the beginning of a dialogue with the community. I embraced the challenge of beginning my position as superintendent in January, which coincided with the beginning of the budget development process. However, engaging the community about their educational priorities is, and will remain, a yearlong effort on the part of the Kingston City School District.