In the wake of last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., parents in the Lynbrook and East Rockaway school districts have revived a petition urging Village of East Rockaway officials to stop holding public votes in schools.
“After everything in Parkland, I felt it was the appropriate time to move forward with the petition,” said Mary Beth Kilcommons Stalter, who created it. “You’re still allowing people to come into the building during the day while there are students in the building.”
East Rockaway village elections, primaries and special elections are held at Rhame Avenue, Centre Avenue and East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. Because parts of the Lynbrook School District are within the village, polling also takes place at Marion Street, Waverly Park and South Middle School, often when school is in session.
The concerns were first raised during PTA meetings two years ago, Kilcommons Stalter said. Last April, she started the petition against in-school voting, and it garnered about 100 signatures. After the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, in which 17 people were killed, she recirculated the petition, and it had collected 400 signatures as of press time.
The petition urges officials to heed the “serious concerns about the Village of East Rockaway holding votes in schools within East Rockaway school buildings as well as Lynbrook buildings that are within the village.”
Kilcommons Stalter suggested that the village hold elections at the library, the Elks Lodge or the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars posts. The Village of Lynbrook designated the recreation center at Greis Park as its polling place.
“Any time you open the schools up to anyone, you’re jeopardizing the safety of our school,” Kilcommons Stalter said.
In a joint statement to the Herald, East Rockaway Mayor Bruno Romano and village board members said they would look into the matter, noting that there will not be a village election until next March.
“The Village of East Rockaway is concerned for all our neighbors’ safety — especially our children — after recent events around the nation,” the statement read. “Balancing federal requirements of voter access with safety and security is vitally important. Our village government looks forward to working with, and seeing how, the Nassau County Board of Elections and school boards are able to balance these important needs.”
Speaking on behalf of the Board of Elections, Bonnie Garone, counsel to Democratic Commissioner David Gugerty, said the board does not set the polling places for village elections. She said the village clerk is responsible to setting village elections. In East Rockaway, that is Patricia Renner.
Kilcommons Stalter noted, however, that schools are not only used for village elections, because citizens come into the buildings on primary days and for special elections. On polling and election days, regular safety procedures — such as locked front entrances and visitors stating their names and reasons for coming to the school — are not followed. In addition, visitors are not asked for identification, because it would be a violation of voters’ rights and election laws.
Kilcommons Stalter said she has three children in district schools, including one who attends Marion Street. The site of the petition shows a picture of Marion Street with its doors open for polling during school hours.
Garone said that the Board of Elections has listened to the concerns of officials from many school districts. She noted that members of the department plan to sit down with the School Superintendents Association to discuss the issue and address possible alternatives.
“We are completely understanding of the schools’ concerns, and our Planning Department people work with them to try to fill their needs,” Garone said. She added that the department looks for polling places that are centrally located, convenient for voters, have ample parking and offer accommodations for those with disabilities. The buildings must also be large enough to accommodate voting machines and many residents at a time.
Garone noted, however, that schools must make themselves available to serve as polling places. “Any place that receives state funds is required to be a polling place if called upon,” she said.
Lauren Ross Pignataro, a co-president of the Marion Street PTA, who signed the petition, said that district parents have brought up the concerns for years. “The petition was a means to show the village officials how much alignment there is across the residents of Lynbrook and East Rockaway,” she said. “Given the daily security measures in place to keep our children safe, it’s impossible to reconcile why we would throw this all out the window for a day.”
Parents concerns have been shared with Lynbrook Superintendent Dr. Melissa Burak and East Rockaway Superintendent Lisa Ruiz, each of whom has reached out to the Board of Elections and the village, Kilcommons Stalter said. Calls seeking comment from Ruiz and Burak were not returned as of press time. Kilcommons Stalter said she was assured that the issue would be a topic of discussion at the next Lynbrook Board of Education meeting on March 14.
In May 2016, State Assemblyman Brian Curran submitted legislation that would prevent the use of schools as polling places when classes are in session. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky also sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.
“It’s the sad truth that we are living in a day and age where parents must fear who might come into a school and have access to their children,” Kaminsky said. “On election days, we simply cannot say that everyone who enters a school building has been vetted and authorized to be there, as would happen normally. Therefore, we must explore alternative arrangements to ensure that our students are safe every day of the school calendar.”
Curran said that the bills are now in the Senate and Assembly election committees, but have not yet come up on the agendas. The committees are obligated to act — either by holding a bill or putting it up for a vote — by the end of this legislative session, in June or July. Until then, parents such as Kilcommons Stalter will continue to advocate for change, they say.
“There seems to be support from the superintendents and from our legislators,” Kilcommons Stalter said. “So, it’s kind of baffling to me why this is still being questioned at all. . . . It’s a Long Island-wide problem.”
Her petition can be found by clicking here.