Bilingual ballots at all North Fork school budget votes will be a first

Newly enforced federal guidelines have prompted all North Fork school districts to offer Spanish and English ballots to budget voters for the first time this year, according to officials.

Section 203 of the Voting Rights Act requires state or political groups — including school districts — to provide minority groups comprising more than 5% of voting-age citizens with language-appropriate voting notices, forms, instructions, assistance and other materials or information relating to the electoral process, according to information from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The New York Civil Liberties Union criticized New York school districts last May for distributing ballots and budget information in English only. The criticism came after some parents in Westchester, Suffolk and Nassau counties reported to the union that parents with limited English proficiency struggled to vote last year.

The United States Department of Justice has since asked Nassau and Suffolk school districts to adhere to the mandate, said Irma Solis of Central Islip, Suffolk’s NYCLU president.

“It’s not only about the ballots,” Ms. Solis said. “It’s about being able to offer translation services or interpretation services, where folks can ask questions if they’re unclear about something.”

Southold Town Anti-Bias Task Force co-chair Sonia Spar, who is a New York State certified translator, said bilingual ballots are essential in school budget elections.

“Language barriers disrupt the flow of communication and prevents the complete understanding of processes and proposals,” she said in an email Tuesday. “In some areas, there are minorities who need assistance with bilingual resources.”

The Southold and Greenport districts, which share several educational services, have 28% and 55% Hispanic or Latino students, respectively. Joint superintendent David Gamberg said both districts plan to follow the new regulations. 

“[We’re] getting guidance on what we have to do by way of printing, mailing, forming and translation,” he said last Monday. 

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 19.5% of Suffolk residents are Hispanic or Latino. But New York State Education Department data for 2017-18 shows that Hispanic or Latino students account for roughly 31% of public school enrollment in the county. 

In the Riverhead Central School District, some Spanish budget information has been offered to voters in years past, but Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said via email that this is the first year a Spanish version of the complete proposed budget will be made available. According to 2017-18 data from the New York State Education Department, 48% of students in the Riverhead district are Hispanic.

Shoreham-Wading River School District Superintendent Gerard Poole said that over the last seven years, the percentage of students in the district who identify as Hispanic or Latino has risen from 5% to 7%. 

As a federal requirement, Mr. Poole said, it’s important that the district complies with the mandate “in order to ensure that voting materials are accessible to our residents in district elections and votes.”

Following the trend, Mattituck-Cutchogue School District Superintendent Jill Gierasch said the district’s Latino population has increased in recent years, and the ballots will accommodate Spanish-speaking voters. According to 2017-18 state data 17% of enrolled students are Latino or Hispanic. Ms. Gierasch said the district aims to ensure that all residents are informed voters.

In Oysterponds, which has 76 students in grades K-6, Spanish ballots have been, and will continue to be, distributed to Spanish-speaking voters, said district clerk Marion Hughes. She said the district will always aim to make its budget available to Spanish-speaking voters.

“It’s important that every member of this community is able to understand what’s going on in the district,” she said.

Despite the amount of time it’s taken for North Fork districts to jump on board with Spanish ballots, Ms. Spar said, she’s glad schools are at this point.

“At least we are here right now,” she wrote. “I believe this was an important step in the right direction and it will help increase engagements from the families.”

While bilingual ballots are primarily intended to assist the Latino community, Ms. Solis said, nothing is preventing school districts from offering ballots in other languages if it applies to voters.

“As we know, the Latino community on Long Island is vibrant, and has been growing for some time,” she said. “Parents who have children and who are eligible to vote should be afforded an opportunity to have a clear understanding of — and have a meaningful opportunity to participate in — the democratic process.” 

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