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Whew!

Voters approve the Albany school and library budgets while an unusual mailer from the school-board president raises questions

by Darryl McGrath on May 16, 2012

 

In an era when even affluent school districts in New York no longer consider it a given that their budgets will pass, the Albany School Board had good reason this week to give a heartfelt thanks to voters who approved a $207.7 million spending plan by a nearly two-to-one margin.

“I think we’ve got a great board and a lot of support from this community,” said outgoing Superintendent Raymond Colucciello as the final results came in Tuesday night. “To see the public come out in these hard times—it’s exhilarating.”

Voters also approved the sale of the Sunshine School in Lincoln Park to the Albany Community Development Agency for no less than $125,000, and the Philip Schuyler Elementary School on Western Avenue for no less than $2 million.

There was also a vote on the library budget. Along with a new $6.4 million budget, the Albany Public Library gained three board members: Arlene Way, Daniel Curtis and Mary Ellen Piche.

Of all the decisions made at Albany’s polls Tuesday night, it was the school budget vote that caught the most attention, and not only because of its implications for programs and services for children.

School Board President Dan Egan is considering a run for the Albany mayor’s seat next year, almost certainly on a platform that links what he touts as the strength of city schools despite tough financial times to the strength of the city overall. This was the last school budget process over which he will have presided before he decides whether to officially enter the race. Five-term incumbent Gerald D. Jennings has not announced whether he will seek reelection.

If you were one of the 3,600 Albany residents described by Egan as a “prime voter”—a registered Democrat who has voted in several recent primaries or for several recent school budgets—then you would have received in the mail a few days before the school budget vote a 5 1/2-inch-by-8 1/2-inch postcard that carries both a color photograph of Egan and a message from him that urges voters to support the spending plan.

“By voting YES on Albany’s School Budget, you will be supporting children, families and the quality of life in our city,” Egan’s message reads in part.

Nothing on the postcard identifies Egan as a member of the Albany School Board; the return address is his home on Manning Boulevard. At the bottom of the postcard, in minuscule typeface, are the notations that the message is in Egan’s “personal and individual capacity as a resident of the City of Albany” and that the mailing was “paid for by friends of Dan Egan.”

Egan said he paid for the $1,700 mailing with money left over from his school board run four years ago—money he said he has also used to support other candidates in the intervening years—and that he sought legal advice on both the text of the postcard and the decision to send it at all.

“I wanted to do a flyer,” Egan said. “I thought it might be more effective.”

Under a New York State Court of Appeals decision dating to the mid-1980s, neither school districts nor school boards acting on behalf of a district can use taxpayer money to campaign for or against a school budget, said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association.

Under that decision, districts and board members can explain to the public what the budget will preserve or cut, but they cannot couch those descriptions as emotional appeals intended to sway voters one way or another, Worona said. Telling voters at a school-board budget workshop that after-school programs are being cut is acceptable, because it’s factual. Telling voters that their children will be in harm’s way and will face psychological deprivation unless residents approve the budget that includes those after-school programs veers into questionable and probably unacceptable action by a board.

“It doesn’t sound like this individual ventured into that area,” Worona said.

Worona said he could not comment on the use of previous campaign funds to finance a mailing by a school board member acting as a private citizen, because campaign financing is not his area of expertise, but that school board members do retain a constitutional right to promote a school budget as private citizens.

For his part, Egan says his intentions were straightforward: He wanted to remind voters that the budget proposal preserved many important programs and kept class size down, while also staying well within the state-mandated tax cap that limits Albany’s tax levy increase to 3.05 percent.

“I wanted this budget to pass,” Egan said. “I felt this was the best way I could serve this community.”