On Friday, October 12 voters in the Carmel Central School District voted down a proposed bond package of nearly $5 million. In the aftermath, I see two crucial questions facing the community: First, what lessons should the community and the District learn from this? Second, what are we — the community and the District — going to do next?
It will be both interesting and telling to see how these questions are answered in the days ahead. Here is my two-cents worth.
In my view, the chief lesson here is that there is a limit to the public's tolerance for the sort of manipulative, election-bending tactics the Board and the District attempted to use during this referendum. They packaged an extravagant "fitness center," mostly intended to benefit the football team, together with a much larger package of repairs and upgrades at the high school. They closed down all of the polling places except the high school. They moved the date for the vote to a Friday when there was a home football game. And they extended the hours for the vote to ensure the polls were open when the football game finished. When questioned about this at a recent public information session, the District's Mr. Stark basically told the audience none of it was accidental.
From the result, the District and the Board should learn that treating the voters with disdain bordering on contempt is not a wise tactic. Notwithstanding the lesson from chapter XVIII of The Prince, people are not always so simple and inclined to immediate needs as the prince might think. As for the public, the chief lesson, I hope, is that voting actually matters. By voting we hold local officials to account for what they propose to spend tax money on. We do so even when those very officials try to rig the system to prevent just such a result.
With those lessons learned, the fact remains that many parts of the proposed bond are actually necessary. We all live here together. We have to decide how we move forward for our mutual benefit. Our schools are a critical service for our community. We need them to be successful. That means we need those who we have chosen to manage our schools to be good stewards of our money, and we need to provide the necessary funds when the Board and the District come to us with a clear, transparent, and honest need.
There are many items in the failed bond proposal that are probably necessary. I am convinced we need to replace the ancient boiler, for example. We don't want its failure to impact the operation of the high school. So, the community needs the Board and the District to prepare another bond proposal. The new proposal needs to be everything the last one wasn't: It has to be needs-justified, free from padding, and beneficial to all of the students at the high school. The Board and the District need to rebuild the public's confidence in the system. They need to restore closed polling places and put the vote back on traditional days and hours. They need to clearly and publicly abandon schemes to use school activities to try to manipulate how school votes come out. The public, for its part, needs to support a clear and necessary bond proposal when one is presented.