It turns out all that needed to be done to improve sluggish turnout in North Fork school budget votes was to mail every eligible voter a ballot and tell them to fill it out and drop it in the mail.
After years of diminishing voter turnout, this year’s absentee ballot system, brought on by social distancing guidelines in place due to COVID-19, led to historically high returns across the North Fork.
With three of five Southold Town school districts reporting outcomes Tuesday — the deadline for ballots to be returned — the number of residents who took part in the budget votes more than doubled from last year and spending plans were approved by wide margins.
Nowhere on the North Fork has the unusually high turnout been felt so far than in Southold, which went from 510 total votes cast in 2019 to 1,563 this year, an increase of more than 300%.
Voters in the district approved a $31 million budget by a vote of 1,170-393, a 74.8% approval margin. They also overwhelmingly supported funding a new 10-year, $9.5 million capital reserve fund and approved the library budget.
In Greenport, 552 residents said yes to a $20.1 million spending plan that will raise the tax levy by 2.5%, with just 242 votes in opposition. Last year, just 385 voters participated in the budget vote.
Retiring Southold-Greenport Superintendent David Gamberg said Wednesday that he’s “thrilled and appreciative” that each community approved budgets.
“Particularly because of the times that we’re in and in my situation, I’m delighted to leave behind and hand over to the incoming superintendents passed budgets,” he said.
Mr. Gamberg recognized the work of Greenport district clerk Linda O’Leary and Patti DiGregorio in Southold for the undertaking of sending out absentee ballots.
“They had a lot of pressure on them to follow all of these guidelines that just sprang up,” Mr. Gamberg said.
Oysterponds voters approved the elementary school district’s $5.8 million spending plan 413-75.
In New Suffolk, only five voters rejected the $1.4 million budget and 103 said yes. That’s more than double the 52 total votes from a year ago.
Incumbents ran unopposed in all four districts. As the lowest vote-getter in Oysterponds, school board newcomer Erin Johnson will serve the final year of an unexpired term and will face re-election next year.
Mattituck-Cutchogue, which featured the only contested race in Southold Town, did not report results Tuesday. The district, which also had propositions on the ballot to spend $650,000 in capital reserve funds and to create a new $750,000 capital repair reserve fund, resumed counting ballots at noon Wednesday.
The mail-in system was put in place through an executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 1. School votes were also delayed twice from an initial in-person ballot system scheduled for May 14 to a previous absentee ballot deadline of June 9. In addition to mailing in ballots, voters could also drop them off in person until 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Proposition 2 (Expend capital reserve funds)
Proposition 3 (Create repair reserve fund)
Election (3 candidates, 2 open seats)
Patricia Arslanian: 1,461 (Elected)
Mary Lynn Hoeg: 1,451 (Elected)
Brian Mealy: 1,381
Election (3 candidates, 3 open seats)
Janice Caufield: 376
Jeffrey Demarest: 374
Erin Johnson: 330
Proposition 2 (create capital reserve)
Proposition 3 (library budget)
Election (2 candidates, 2 open seats)
Scott Latham: 1,308
Brian Tobin: 1,270
Election (1 candidate, 1 open seat)
Kirsten Droskoski: 490
Election (1 candidate, 1 open seat)
Tony Dill: 100