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Westport 1-29-11

Here's a little of the history behind the current brouhaha over whether non-resident property owners should be allowed to vote in school elections. I've already devoted the last two columns to the issue, but there are such strong feelings on both sides that I thought readers might appreciate a little recap.

New York State education law has traditionally been interpreted as requiring voters in school elections to have their primary residence in the school district. That interpretation has been challenged many times over the years, but so far those challenges have not been successful. The most recent such challenge was in 2008.

The most recent, that is, until five property owners in Westport decided to challenge it again late last year, after the school district turned down their requests for absentee ballots. Since the people making the requests acknowledged that their primary residences are elsewhere, school officials believe that they were merely following the law in turning down the requests.

The part-time residents then petitioned the state Commissioner of Education, which elicited a response from the district, then a response to the response by the petitioners, and (last week) a memorandum of law from the district. Total costs so far to the school district: over $5,000, according to Superintendent Gallagher.

This is all complicated by the involvement in the petitions of some of the same people who have made the email circuit (and gone on public record) complaining about property taxes and calling for cuts to the school budget. However, they deny the suggestion that the current effort is part of an agenda to reduce the school budget or even do away with the school altogether.

So our little town is currently embarked on the larger stage of state politics. If the petitioners are successful, the implications will be sweeping-and not just for the state, but quite possibly for the nation at large, since most states require primary residency to vote in school elections. On the other hand, if they are turned down, life will go on pretty much as before - with just as much wrangling over the school budget, presumably.

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