For public libraries seeking school ballot funding, there's some gray area around whether a petition with signatures of eligible school district voters needs to be submitted to the school. Is the petition actually needed and if so, what laws and policies define this process?
When I started writing “Ask the Lawyer” in 2016, my daughter was two years old.
I would like to be able to answer this question like a two-year-old Molly and say simply (and loudly): “NO!” (you don't need a petition).
But time grinds on, so sadly, I have to answer this question like 9-year-old Molly, saying instead with an eye roll: “You shouldn't have to do that. It's not specifically required, and no one has had to do that for ages. But I guess there is some sort of precedent, so maybe do it so you don't get trolled?”
The reasons for this convoluted stance is as complex as the reason why my daughter's “craft corner” is still a mess.
Here they are:
As many of you know, the board of a public library (of any kind) can require a school board to put a vote to “establish or increase” a levy in support of that library per Education Law Section 259(1)(a).
In 2007, the NY Legislature amended  259(1)(a) to specify that such a levy: “shall be submitted to the voters of the district as proposed by the library board of trustees...”
Lest anyone get confused as to why the Legislature would make such a change, the memo in support of the bill explained:
This legislation would amend Section 259 of the education law to clarify the ability of a library board of trustees to place budget proposals before voters for approval. Paragraph a of Subdivision 1 of Section 259 is amended to authorize only budget proposals approved by the library board of trustees to be placed on a ballot. [emphasis added]
This purpose of the amendment is explained in the section of the legislative memo ‘justifying’ the amendment:
This bill clarifies and conforms provisions relating to library budget votes. The amendment to paragraph a (budget votes in school district public library) conforms the mechanism for placing a vote on the ballot to that already in Paragraph b (budget votes on municipal funding of other types of libraries). Ensuring endorsement of the proposition by the library board of trustees will eliminate the potential for multiple and conflicting library budget proposals on the same ballot. School budget propositions are currently subject to approval of the school board.
While interpreting statutes is a complex exercise, ‘plain language’ is an important factor. In this case, the plain language of both the 2007 amendment and its supporting memo indicate that to avoid “multiple and conflicting library budget proposals,” the path to a school district ballot is via the library board, for terms “as proposed by the library board of trustees.” And since this is per Education law 259(1)(a), which clearly states the resolution is “as proposed by the board” no petition is required.
Okay, great. So the library board can adopt a resolution to propose to the voters of the district, and the voters of the district have the power to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
I would love to stop this RAQ there, but there is another wrinkle to consider here: is there a way for the voters to put such a resolution on the school district ballot?
This question is raised by two sections of the Education Law.
First: Section 259(1)(b), pertaining to most municipal ballots, which provides:
1. Except as provided in subparagraph two of this paragraph, whenever qualified voters of a municipality, in a number equal to at least ten per centum of the total number of votes cast in such municipality for governor at the last gubernatorial election, shall so petition and the library board of trustees shall endorse, the question of establishing or increasing the amount of funding of the annual contribution for the operating budget of a registered public or free association library by such municipality to a sum specified in said petition, shall be voted on at the next general election of such municipality, provided that due public notice of the proposed action shall have been given.
Second: Education Law Section 2008, which empowers school district voters to initiate a vote on taxes.
This combo is nicely summarized in an opinion from the New York State Comptroller in 1981, when the authority of a library board to put the appropriation on the ballot was still a bit shaky:
Therefore, it is the opinion of this Department that where a library board requests an appropriation proposition to be placed on the ballot at the annual meeting of a central school district, the board of education must comply. Such a proposition may also be submitted to the voters by petition under section 2008(2) of the Education Law or the board could include such a proposition with a revote called under section 2007. The notice of any meeting where such a proposition will be voted on should so state. [emphasis added]
But that was back in 1981. Since the 2007 amendment to Education Law 259 made it very clear that only a budget “endorsed by the library board” can be put to a school district vote, it would follow that the voters no longer have the power to submit a petition under Education 2008 (without the endorsement of the board).
So: is a petition signed by a certain number of voters required to put a budget before the voters of a school district? No. Just like a school board, the library board doesn't have to obtain a petition to exercise its authority under 259 and submit a budget for a vote. And can a group of voters use their powers under Education Law 2008 to force a vote? Again, the language and history of the law suggests the answer is ‘no.’
The tricky thing with all of this is that while the language is clear, the changes to Education Law 259(1)(a) have not been put to a legal test, and there is enough ambiguity for a school district to want to stick with a tried-and-true (pre-2007) practice and insist that a school district ballot 1) must be initiated by a petition signed by the right number of voters; OR 2) can be initiated by district voters per 2008 without the need for board approval. What can I say? Lawyers love precedent.
And now, of course, I have to give a disclaimer.
Sitting here in my lawyer cave, I can argue what the language of the law ‘suggests.’ BUT until we get a test case to settle the issue—like how the 2022 Eisenhauer v. Watertown case settled whether school district taxes can support a municipal library without violating the NY Constitution—we won't have absolute certainty. So, libraries should work carefully with their counsel, who should work carefully with the counsel for the school district, to confirm the process and language of school district ballots. Clear, open channels of communication between the library, the district, and the town can avoid problems down the road—and of course, libraries should always get a written opinion when budgets and funding are on the line.
Thank you for an important question!
 Yes, my daughter talks like both a lawyer and a Youtuber. Since most people reading this are librarians, there's a strong chance the children in your life talk this way, too. Yay, reading and multi-media literacy!
 “I was going to clean up but I couldn't find anywhere to put the dried mint and the glue gun, so I stuffed all the pipe cleaners in an old shoe box and called it a day.”—Not an exact quote, but a good paraphrase.
 Bill #A5107, sponsored by Assemblymember Eddington, and likely worked on by many people you know in “LibraryWorld” (at the time, I was in HigherEdWorld).
 The law makes excludes from the term “municipality” a city with a population of one million or more, and includes a county when the public libraries located in such county are members of a federated public library system whose central library is located in a city of more than three hundred thousand inhabitants.
 Reporter 1981 N.Y. Comp. LEXIS 726 * | 1981 N.Y. St. Comp. 176 ** Opinion No. 81-167
 It's a lawyer's security blanket.
 (Matter of Eisenhauer v Watertown City Sch. Dist., 208 AD3d 952 [4th Dept 2022]), appeal dismissed by (Eisenhauer v Watertown City Sch. Dist., 39 NY3d 944 ). By the way, the case has more going on than just constitutional issues, so give it a read. It has nice language on the autonomy and independence of municipal libraries.
 Personally, I didn't think that question was up for debate, but the decision at all three levels of review (Supreme Court, Appellate Division, and Court of Appeals) now leaves no room for doubt.