LATHAM, N.Y. — What began as a news conference Monday morning quickly devolved into a flurry of accusations and arguments over this week's North Colonie School District capital project vote.
Albany County Comptroller Mike Conners called the news conference outside North Colonie's district office, drawing attention to what he called "tremendous problems" with the district's planned voting procedure this week. The vote, scheduled for Thursday, will decide the future of a $196.4 million, district-wide construction project in Latham. The capital project includes classroom and athletic field upgrades, security improvements, several building expansions and a newly refursbished auditorium.
The project is a district response to growing enrollment; North Colonie expects to add almost 1,000 children to its student population within the next decade.
The vote will decide whether taxpayers in Latham will absorb a 5.9 percent tax increase over the next six years to pay for the upgrades. But Conners says the way the district will run the vote — 10 days before Christmas, with only one polling place for 40,000 potential voters — is wrong and potentially illegal.
"It creates a tremendous problem, with the appearance of voter suppression," Conners said, promising to send election observers to the vote being held at the Goodrich School on Thursday and analyze how constrictive the process is.
Conners' office also plans to operate a "voter complaint hotline" on Thursday at 518-447-7130.
The school district fired back later Monday, saying an obscure state law requires the vote be held only at Goodrich School because North Colonie does not perform "personal voter registration." That prevents the district from setting up individual voting districts at several, more convenient locations.
"I would love for us to vote at the individual elementary schools," said Superintendent Joseph Corr. "It was not my decision."
Corr noted that his district's votes in the past, including budgets and school board elections, have been held at multiple polling locations. As for voting in December, 10 days before Christmas, Corr explained that the need to thoroughly plan the project — combined with an "enhanced state aid" period that expires in 2018 — forced the district's hand.
"We tried to schedule a vote in October," Corr said, before acknowledging that would have rushed the pre-vote process. Corr said waiting too long to vote would jeopardize the enhanced funding deadline and hurt taxpayers.
"By hitting that window, we save our local taxpayers $26.8 million," he said.
During Conners' earlier news conference, district legal counsel Patrick Fitzgerald interrupted reporters to dispute Conners' accounting of the facts. Fitzgerald told Conners he was incorrectly characterizing the voting rules as an attempt to mislead or discourage voters.
"It sure looks that way," said Conners.
The two then spent several minutes talking over each other and asking questions while offering few answers. Conners also laid the district's voting problems at Fitzgerald's feet, citing his firm's "years of representing" the North Colonie School District.
Thursday's vote will be held from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. at Goodrich School on Fiddlers Lane in Latham. The project, if approved, will likely begin construction in 2018, with a 5.9 percent tax increase kicking in by 2023.
Find more information on the proposed capital project by clicking here.