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School district says it will take steps to prevent errors after mistake changed final budget tally

A polling place error resulted in an inaccurate vote count during the Riverhead Central School District’s annual budget vote May 18, district officials announced last Friday.

According to a statement released by the school district, there were 300 more “no” votes on the budget proposal than were initially reported on election night, bringing the final results to 2,237 in favor and 1,186 opposed.

The district first reported that the $154.9 million spending plan, which carried no tax increase, was approved by a vote of 2,237 to 886.

The error was first discovered May 21 by the district clerk during a routine audit of voting materials, according to deputy superintendent Sam Schneider.

“The head poll worker at the Riley Avenue location erroneously reported the total number of ‘no’ votes on the budget,” Mr. Schneider explained last Thursday in a statement through Syntax, the district’s public relations firm. “After a 15.5-hour day, she reported the total number of no votes from one machine to be 137 instead of 437,” Mr. Schneider said.

When polls close on election night, Mr. Schneider said, mechanics from the Suffolk County Board of Elections secure the voting machines, which then print reporting tapes that show the total number of votes per item. Head poll workers at each polling place then call district officials headquartered at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School with the results.

“In this instance, I took the call and transcribed the numbers into the spreadsheet we keep with the vote totals,” Mr. Schneider said. “As is the procedure, I gave the phone to Christopher Venator, an attorney for the district, who asked the poll worker to repeat the numbers as a check. Unfortunately, the poll worker again mistakenly indicated 137 no votes.”

The mistake had no impact on the trustee elections, officials said, since those results are reported separately.

In a six-way race for two seats on the Board of Education, incumbent Brian Connelly was re-elected with 1,392 votes and Colin Palmer won a seat with 1,309 votes.

Riverhead resident Kathy Berezny, a former Board of Education president, said she suspected the ‘no’ vote tally of 886 was low and was disheartened when she heard about the mistake.

“In today’s time with elections, that wasn’t really good for our community,” Ms. Berezny said. “I’m glad the budget passed and glad for the kids, but I wonder about transparency. [The district] needs better control measures.”

Mr. Schneider said the district took immediate steps to report the error and update the website with the correct information. “The district places a high value on the accurate administration of elections,” he said, adding that in future elections, the district will require that reporting tapes themselves be transported to Roanoke from the other three polling locations to prevent these kinds of errors.

“This may lengthen the time it takes to report the vote total, but we feel that this kind of error cannot be repeated in the future,” Mr. Schneider said.

In a joint statement, Monique Parsons and Shannon Reitz, who campaigned together as a team, said they were happy to see that the district plans to change its protocol for the next election. “Being proactive, not reactive, is the best way to approach all issues within the district,” their statement read.

Yolanda Thompson, who was also running for a seat on the school board, said she would support an investigation but is unsure if she’ll go as far as to file a complaint with the state Department of Education.

“How could that mistake have gone unnoticed for days?” she asked during an interview last Thursday. “We should have faith in the results.” 

According to New York State education law, disputes over the validity of election results must be referred to the commissioner of education for a decision. “His decisions in the matter shall be final and not subject to review,” the law states, adding that the commissioner may, at his discretion, order a new election.

Ms. Thompson said last week that further action should be taken to prevent future errors, including holding the annual budget vote at a centralized location such as the high school or rotating poll workers’ shifts “so they aren’t on 15.5-hour shifts.”

“A lot of [the poll workers] are older people and have been there since before 6 a.m.,” Ms. Thompson said. “For me the issue is transparency, being forthright with the information, disseminating it properly and respect for the public.”