It’s back to the drawing board for one the nation’s priciest proposed school renovations. After the last of the absentee ballots and affidavits were counted today, voters in Albany rejected a $196 million plan for a major makeover and addition to Albany High School.
The vote was too close to call on election night last week. The Albany County Board of Elections began tabulating around 1,100 absentee ballots on Tuesday, breaking for Veterans Day then resuming the count Thursday morning. 325 ballots from so-called “upscale” Wards 12 through 15 remained.
By noon, signs of defeat were building. The margin of defeat grew from the 10-vote lead the "no's" held election night to about 100 on Thursday. Ward 15, with 72 no votes to 10 yes, proved to be the kiss of death for the revitalization plan.
All of the absentee ballots were then scanned by machine in order to arrive at an official number, which has yet to be verified. Latest figures available form the Board of Elections showed 5,794 voted yes and 5,897 voted no.
Despite the closeness of the vote and the low turnout number of voters overall, Albany School Board Vice President Sue Adler believes the high will be rebuilt. "We still have a dire need for a new high school, and that's one of the reasons that we haven't spent large amounts of money while still maintaining it, because we assumed at some point, and hoped that the population, the voters, would actually build the new high school as they did to the middle and the elementary schools back in 2001. And I'm sure that the board, once it meets, will consider what the next steps are that we need to take to ensure that all of the 2,500 students plus the additional students that are in the pipeline from the elementary and middle schools actually have a safe, secure learning environment for 21st century work."
The project faced a lot of minuses out of the gate. It would increase an already heavy homeowner tax burden. The highs' graduation rate of 50 percent is no selling point. And then there's the persistent association with after-school street violence, which led some merchants along Albany's Central Avenue to lock their doors during dismissal time.
But advocates for the project — including many local elected officials including the mayor — said the current building was in disrepair, with leaking roofs and not enough space. "There will always be people who will vote against wither a school budget or a library budget, or both, and that's what democracy is all about, so I can't really speak for why they vote against it. The graduation rate, while not totally dependent on the environment and certainly what goes in the walls much more important, but that there is a correlation between buildings and the environment that you have for students, the overcrowding and the kinds of services you can provide and the fact that teachers are sharing classrooms at the high school right now. Those are the kinds of things that are important to actually change, and in fact, will show impact in terms of the educational success of the students in the building."
Adler is confident that the proposition will resurface at a future date. Officials could get it back on a ballot as soon as that is feasible within existing laws, although it could be scaled down or redesigned from here.
Repeated attempts to reach Albany High officials for comment were not successful.