Shen land referendum turnout falls after April controversy

Clifton Park residents vote on the Shenendehowa land deal, Dec. 5, 2017.

PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICA MILLERClifton Park residents vote on the Shenendehowa land deal, Dec. 5, 2017. PHOTOGRAPHER: ERICA MILLER

By Kassie Parisi

Gazette Reporter

CLIFTON PARK — After a strong spike during an April referendum, voter turnout for the Dec. 5 referendum on a land sale by the Shenendehowa Central School District returned to a more typical level for the district.

The vote on a proposal to sell 37 acres of district-owned land was the second attempt by the district to offload the parcel. On April 4, a plan to sell the land to BBL Construction for $2 million brought out 7,765 voters. Just 3,258 turned out for last week’s referendum, which proposed selling the same land to the town of Clifton Park for $1 million.

There were 2,723 votes to sell the land and 535 votes against the deal.

The same night, voters also approved a $22 million capital project, with a total of 3,211 ballots cast on that issue.

While April’s vote was an jump from recent years, it did was not a record. The highest turnout on record for the district came during the 1992 school budget vote, which saw 9,573 ballots cast. Other years have had seen total votes in the high 7,000 to 8,000 range, according to school district data.

The lower turnout numbers are more in line with the trend Shen has seen: decreasing voter turnout over the last seven years.

According district data, the 2010 budget vote saw 5,865 ballots cast. That number jumped to 6,092 in 2011 before dropping each consecutive year until 2016, when it hit an all-time low — 2,603 people voted for that year’s budget.

After the April referendum, turnout moved back up, with 3,199 people casting ballots in the May budget vote.

Board of Education president Bill Casey, who served his first term in 1988, confirmed there has been a downturn in the amount of people who participate in the process. The board, he said, is aware of the issue and is looking for ways to improve turnout.

“To me, it’s a troubling trend that I think we can do something about,” he said. “It’s comfortable in a way, but deep down, my sense is we need to keep working.”

Casey believes the low turnout stems from the fact that district residents have been comfortable with the district’s direction. Enrollment is projected to decrease by more than 100 students by 2020, while budgets have increased by just over 2 percent over the past five years.

When faced with an important decision though, people will turn out in droves, he noted. During the 2008-09 school year, voters came out in large numbers for a budget that had been made tighter by the country’s fiscal crisis with a higher turnout than usual.

“It’s been a low controversy time,” he said. “I think it may be some complacency. And we’ve talked about how to increase awareness and increase interest.”

While an exit poll was taken as residents left Tuesday’s referendum, data from that poll was not yet available. But according to an exit poll by the district for the April vote, 75 percent of voters lived in Clifton Park and 60 percent had no children younger than 18.

Casey said the 535 people who voted against the most recent referendum were, according to conversations he had at the polls, residents who either preferred the BBL sale or believed that the district should have sought more money from the town for the land.

But Casey pointed out that, nearly every year, the budget plans garner around 700 “no” votes. He attributed that to the fact that school budget votes are one of the few ways people can have a direct say in communitywide decisions.

However, Casey said the board will continue to encourage voters to participate. This year, the district began a series of forums on various topics of concern by the school board, forums at which residents are able to ask the board questions. One such forum, held in the fall, was about the district’s mental health services.

“I think there’s a level of satisfaction,” he said. “The only thing we know is, we can’t rest on our laurels.”