A discussion topic at Board of Education meetings in recent months has morphed into an online petition urging residents to support moving district elections out of the schools. North Shore Parents for Safe Schools posted the petition last month on change.org, and at press time it had more than 200 signatures.
The petition requests that the annual school board and budget election, typically held on the third Tuesday in May, be moved to a location without students and teachers. Historically, district elections have been held in the high school gym.
State education law requires that district elections be held in a schoolhouse that is “accessible and adequate.” North Shore Parents member Grant Kletter, of Sea Cliff, said he believes the current polling place is neither, because it poses “unnecessary security risks,” according to the petition.
“There are individuals that are coming to the school that shouldn’t be in the school during the normal school day,” Kletter said. “The school district has just spent a significant amount of money on visitor management systems, additional cameras, training of staff to deal with security, and then on Election Day it gets thrown out, because you cannot prevent somebody from coming into a polling place and voting.”
Location, location, location
The petition suggests what Kletter calls “suitable alternatives” to be used as district polling sites, including local community centers, libraries, firehouses, places of worship or other district-owned facilities. North Shore’s transportation facility in Glenwood Landing is one such example.
“Any location you name where the students and staff are not present is safer, no matter what security measures they put in place,” Kletter said. “No matter how comfortable we all feel with the measures that are there, it’s still safer for it to be somewhere else.”
Superintendent Dr. Peter Giarrizzo said that while the board had considered the transportation facility as an alternative, he thought the high school gym was still “the best option.” “The transportation facility is a complicated site,” he said. “There’s not a common space large enough within it to accommodate all the voters and poll workers, and there [could be] an issue of parking the buses.” The district’s attorneys, he added, also advised the board that the vote should take place in one of the schools.
The petition further states that the high school gym is “inadequate” to house elections because it is not “securely separated from the rest of the building.” Giarrizzo disagreed. “The benefit of the high school site is it can be cordoned off and secured, and we can isolate that wing of the building from visitors and students,” he said, noting the location’s single entry point and security personnel.
Trustee Tim Madden also refuted the point, and said he favored keeping district elections in schools. “Schools and the community are one and the same,” he said. “I want to see the connection between the community and the schools fostered and strengthened, and I don’t want that connection to be walled off.”
Madden added that relocating the district’s polling site before the upcoming election in May would “have the effect of disenfranchising the voters,” potentially causing confusion and affecting voter turnout.
Giarrizzo said he agreed with Kletter on another point in the petition, to move general elections out of schools. The location of general polling places in the North Shore School District — at Glenwood Landing Elementary, Sea Cliff Elementary and the middle school — is determined by the Nassau County Board of Elections. “If I had my choice, those wouldn’t be the sites that I would choose,” he said.
Since 2014, the New York State School Boards Association has advocated for legislation that would give school districts the right to refuse placement of a polling site in a school because of safety concerns. An October 2018 statement from Julie Marlette, NYSSBA’s director of governmental relations, reads, “This legislation does not prohibit the use of school buildings as polling places, but rather allows district leaders to put the safety of students first, without compromising educational priorities to do so.”
At the local level, the fight to keep general elections out of schools has been “extremely limited,” said David Gugerty, the Democratic commissioner of the Nassau County Board of Elections. In the past year, he added, “less than a handful of school districts have expressed concerns.”
As a parent, Gugerty said, he understood the concern about holding elections in schools, but said he believed the recent voting reforms in the state would help alleviate parents’ fears. Now, Election Day in New York is a state holiday, and the consolidation of state and federal primaries requires one primary day on the fourth Tuesday in June, when school is out of session in many places.
“Over 60 percent of our . . . poll sites are located in schools, and 70 percent of our one million voters vote in schools,” Gugerty said. Moving general elections out of schools, he added, “would be a monumental and detrimental change to the smooth running of elections in Nassau County.”
Parents weigh in
Giarrizzo said that all North Shore schools are closed for the general election in November. Still, some parents would like to see elections removed from schools entirely. At a board meeting on Jan. 10, residents spoke in support of Kletter’s petition.
“Most of the parents would love to see the elections out of the building, and I hate the idea of closing schools on Election Day,” said Pooja Vira, a Sea Cliff parent. “For the kids to miss school when they’re not even voting is also really frustrating. It’s another day that they lose in their cycle.”
Glen Head resident Ally Ciampa said that moving elections might encourage younger voters in the district to vote, as it would show “the 18-year-olds . . . that we’re working for their safety,” she said. “I think people would understand that it’s really just being done to be proactive for the safety of the kids.”
Trustees will vote to distribute election notices to publicize the location of the school board and budget vote at the end of March. In the meantime, Giarrizzo said that he and the board would work with parents to bolster their confidence. “We empathize with the concern of the parents on this issue,” he said. “Based on the additional measures that we put into place starting last year, I have greater confidence in the security of the space.”
This week, Sea Cliff officials sent a letter to the Board of Elections identifying alternative polling sites in the village, with the goal of finding a voting facility other than the elementary school.
Village Administrator Bruce Kennedy said, “The board unanimously feels it is inappropriate to be holding elections where the general public is going into an active school.”