Mamaroneck School Budget Defeated by 61% of Vote
by Judy Silberstein
(May 16, 2007) A last minute mailing from an anonymous source urging “Vote No May 15th” may have resulted in a surprising defeat of the Mamaroneck School District’s budget by an overwhelming margin. The official tally showed 61% of the voters opposed to the $112 million budget. A majority of voters in each of the four elementary school quadrants rejected the budget, with the “no” vote ranging from a high of 72% in the Mamaroneck Avenue School area to a low of 57% at Murray Avenue School.
OFFICIAL VOTE RESULTS
This was the first rejection of a Mamaroneck school budget in decades. In 1976 and 1978 budgets failed on the first vote but passed on a second a month later.
The turnout of 2724 was higher than last year’s 2375 when the vote was adopted by a margin of victory identical to this year’s margin of defeat, 61%. (See: 2006 Budget Vote.) However, there have been much higher turnouts in the recent past. There were 2960 votes cast in 2004, when controversy over a plan to move the Kemper Memorial Park led to passage of the budget by only 76 votes. (See: 2004 Budget Vote.) In 2005, the total vote was 3428 and the budget passed by 61%. (See: 2005 Budget Vote.)
The anonymous mailer compared Mamaroneck’s 6.45% tax increase to four districts with lower rates and objected to an administrative restructuring plan for a new assistant superintendent, five new administrative directors and two assistant directors. A district response, emailed to parents Monday through PTA newsletters, defended the plan as a way to "ensure that all students have comparable educational experiences and a smooth transition from Hommocks to the hich school," and compared the budget to that of 9 other districts, 7 with rates higher than Mamaroneck’s. Judging from the results, the “vote no” mailer may have been the more persuasive.
On Tuesday night, Superintendent Paul Fried called the result “certainly disappointing.” New York State law allows districts with defeated budgets to offer voters the same or a revised budget on the third Tuesday in June (June 19, this year). After a second defeat, districts must adopt contingency budgets subject to caps on increases in overall and administrative expenses.
When asked whether Mamaroneck intended to remove the administrative restructuring plan from the budget, Dr. Fried said the decision would be up to the Mamaroneck School Board, which will “see if they can hear more from the community about what was on their minds.”
Removing the plan would cut $400K or less from the budget, according to district estimates.
Cecilia Absher, School Board president, concurred with the need to go “back to work” to get more information from the community. “We want people to communicate directly with us rather than using this [vote] as the way to send a message,” she said.
The board will have to move fast to present a new budget by a June 5 deadline. Already, two meetings have been scheduled (see box) and members of the public are being urged to complete a survey (click for a copy) or email comments to: Budget@mamkschools.org.
Where Was the Pre-Vote Feedback?
When Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried first presented his administrative plan at a public board meeting in February, there was considerable comment from PTA leaders who supported the plan, and from teachers, who universally opposed it. (See: Administrative Plan.) However, since then, there have been numerous in-school meetings about the plan, but no public dispute and no organized opposition to the plan or to the budget. There was also no opposition to the two school board candidates, incumbent Janet Buchbinder and first-timer Nancy Pierson, both PTA leaders chosen by the Committee for the Selection of School Board Nominees. (See:Selection Committee Picks Two for School Board.)
Evidently, the quiet was misleading.
Who Sent the Flier?
Whether it was the flier or some other unvoiced dissatisfaction that scuttled the budget, another mystery remains: Who sent the flier?
The flier’s “anti-plan” arguments closely tracked the position of the Mamaroneck Teachers Association (MTA), citing the high cost of administrative salaries; suggesting resources would be better spent on hiring more teachers to reduce class size and initiate new programs; and suggesting use of “our highly educated faculty” to tackle issues of aligning curriculum and meeting needs of a diverse population.
However, it was “absolutely not,” the MTA, said John Esposito, the union president. “We’re not about that stuff.”
He admitted, “we’re not thrilled” with the administrative plan, and he is particularly concerned that only one director position has been filled so far. He questioned whether good candidates could be found at this late date and if there would be sufficient time to implement the backup plan of retaining department chairs for content areas with no directors. If prospective chairs aren’t told soon, “we’ll be in a chaotic situation,” he said.
So who else might have sent the flier?
By Monday afternoon, a number of amateur sleuths had tracked the permit number on the bulk mailer to Doug Colety, who owns Executive Star Mailing Service and is also a partner in a Mamaroneck-based political consulting firm, Strategic Political Group (SPG). Mr. Colety said he “was not at liberty to reveal” who his mail clients are, but SPG had no involvement in the mailer.
The only person willing to reveal participation in the mailer was Gerhard Stohrer, a Larchmont resident who ran unsuccessfully for School Board in 2005. (See: School Board Candidates Differ on Budget, Fields & Kemper.) When asked, he admitted that he had made a “small financial contribution” but did not plan or prepare the letter and would not tell who had. “It was surprising,” he said of the budget defeat, “the numbers tell me the pro-budget voters did not come out.” He called the result “a useful message to the administration that they have to take the community seriously and not just ram controversial things through.
”Whether or not the flyer’s author is ever revealed, the Mamaroneck School Board plans to launch an intensive effort to understand why its message appears to have resonated with the community. Did the vote reflect anti-tax sentiment? This year’s tax increase is the lowest it has been in five years, but other communities had even smaller rises. Or did the vote stem from opposition to the administrative plan? Or was it some combination of these or other factors?
Starting next Monday, May 21, the board will begin meeting with citizens as they attempt to answer these and other questions.