RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: School Ballot Option for Public Libraries - 10/24/2019
Our public, municipal library wants to seek funding through a school board levy.  The boundar...
Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Our public, municipal library wants to seek funding through a school board levy.  The boundaries of the school district we’re petitioning are outside (but include) our municipality.  Are there any legal impediments to a public, municipal library going on the school district ballot?  We have reached out to New York State Ed’s Division of Library Development and NYLA, but seek a lawyer's perspective.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

Perhaps because our nation was born resisting taxes, few things can rile a close-knit community so much as a good old-fashioned tax levy.  This is one area where the legal issues might be simpler than the range of human emotions. 

That said, the laws governing a school district’s support for a library can present significant considerations, if not impediments, before it can be successfully deployed.  So let’s fly at 10,000 feet, and look at the lay of the land.

There are relatively few entity types that can levy taxes based on real property,[1] and school districts are one of them.[2]  In addition to facilitating school funding through those taxes (the school budget “levy”), districts are empowered to raise a separate amount for “library purposes.”[3]

This power to tax for the benefit of libraries comes with some very clear conditions.

First, the amount to be raised for the library must be listed as a separate item on the ballot; the voters must see it as distinct from the funds to be levied for the school(s).[4]

Second, if the proposition passes, the funds must be delivered to the treasurer of the library as soon as possible, and cannot be retained or mingled with district funds.[5]

Third, the amount of taxes attributable to library purposes must be separately stated on each statement of taxes.[6]  Voters should be able to easily discern the difference.

Now, here is where things get really interesting.

There are two ways such a proposition related to a library levy can get on a school district ballot: 1) a vote by library’s board,[7] or 2) a petition directly from the voters.[8]  Since 2007,[9] the precise amount of any proposed levy has to be endorsed by the library’s board[10] (this is so competing or even contrary funding resolutions can’t get on the same ballot[11]).  When a library board votes to request it, the proposition must be placed on the ballot—even if it lacks the support of the school board.[12]

This power can be used to the benefit of any public library: municipal, special district, school district, free association, etc.[13]  This is true even if the precise boundaries of the school district and the library’s chartered area of service don’t match up.[14]

How can that be?  Anyone who follows “library world” knows that there are numerous kinds of libraries: municipal (created by and with the boundaries of a city, town, or village), school district, special district (which can cross and combine municipal borders), and free association.[15]  The permutations of these libraries are vast, but all serve their communities without charge, and thus meet the definition of “library” as used in Education Law §259.  And thus, all qualify as a “library” that may be supported by a tax levy by a school district.

Here is how the New York State Commissioner of Education,[16] quoting an earlier case, put it as recently as 2015:

As stated in Earlville, a school district is among those entities enumerated in Education Law §255 and, thus, is authorized to vote taxes “for library purposes” pursuant to Education Law §259(1)(a).  Earlville noted that, “although only those entities specifically enumerated in Education Law §255 may levy a tax for library purposes under §259(1)(a) [citations omitted], there is no restriction in §259(1) regarding the type of library for which such taxes may be levied.[17]

Voters, of course, are free to reject the request for support (they can also bring a petition to cease the levy[18]). But the mere act of being asked gives the voters a direct opportunity to consider their community’s overall commitment to educational resources.  In library-philic New York, where we treasure books and learning, this is a critical commitment to education, information access, and community advancement.

It is also a serious vote, since once the levy has been established by the school district, it remains in effect each year until there is a vote to have it removed[19] (which, again, can be initiated by the library’s board, or the voters).

As described by the member, boards considering a school board levy are wise to gather (early) ALL the support they can as they plan for a school board tax levy proposition.  The State Education Department’s Division of Library Development maintains a great starter kit for an initiative.[20]  Reaching out to NYLA, as well as other library advocacy groups, can be critical.  And a lawyer with experience in education law (to help draft resolutions, track the paperwork, and have your back when the unexpected[21] happens) is an essential member of your team.

But while you assemble your team and resources, don’t forget “the people.”  As the famous Tip O’Neall[22] liked to say, “All politics is local.”  So while it’s essential to know a tax levy initiative stands on firm legal ground, nothing replaces careful cultivation of support[23] for your initiative.  That is where the allies listed above, and an attorney looking at the specific circumstances of your library (and always the latest case law), are essential.

Thanks for a great question on a very important topic.  Good wishes for a vote that supports democracy, community, and information access.

 


[1] They are listed in New York’s Real Property Tax Law, which is a fun read if you are lucky enough to be amused by tax law.

[2] See NY Real Property Tax Law Article 13.

[3] See NY Education Law Section 259(1)(a).

[4] New York Real Property Tax Law, §1322 (1) and §1324.

[5] See New York Comptroller Opinion 92-28, as well as Education Law §259(1)(a) and Real Property Tax Law, §1322 (1) and §1324.

[6] New York Real Property Tax Law, §1322 (1) and §1324.

[7] See Education Law §259(1)(a), and for some good color commentary on the process, see New York State Education Commissioner Decision 15,662, which established that once the tax has been turned over to the library, the taxing authority can’t demand it be returned, even if they have to give a taxpayer a correcting refund.

[8] Education Law §2035(2).  To see how this plays out in the field, check out Education Commissioner Decision # 13,891.

[9] See Bill S03542, 2007.

[10] §239(1)(a), again!

[11] This is due to the law being amended in 2007. The objectives of the amendment are detailed in the legislative “memo” for A05107 (2007). The impact of the changes is also discussed in Education Commissioner Decision 16,765. Buckle up if you explore this avenue…there is some quibbling.

[12] This broad interpretation of the word “library” as used in Education Law §259(1)(a) was established in New York State Education Commissioner Decision 12,423, regarding Earlville Free Library, in 1990.  Although §259(1)(a) was amended in 2007, the approach of “Earlville” as the case in known in library circles, was re-affirmed by the Education Commissioner in 2015 (see Decision #16,765, regarding Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District).

[13] As defined by Education law §253(2), that term includes any library established for “free public purposes by official action of a municipality or district or the legislature….”  Some time is spent on this definition in the “Earlville” decision, referenced above.  Note that the definition does exclude libraries within technical, professional, and public schools.

[14] This was also established in Education Commissioner Decision 12,423, regarding Earlville Free Library (1990).

[15] To say nothing of cooperative and federated libraries.

[16] You’re seeing a lot of citations to the Commissioner here.  That’s because per Education Law §2037, the Commissioner with “exclusive original jurisdiction over all disputes concerning the validity of any district meeting or election.”  See Education Commissioner Decision 14,571 (2001).

[17] Appeal of The Board of Trustees of the Earlville Free Library, 1990 Op Comr Educ No 12423.  It is worth noting that while §259 was amended in 2007 (17 years after Earlville) this principle was upheld in 2015 in Decision 16,765,regardingtheJamesville-DeWitt Central School District.

[18] This is broken down in a great Comptroller Opinion: 1981 N.Y. Comp. LEXIS 726, 1981 N.Y. St. Comp. 176.

[19] See New York State Commissioner of Education Decision 15,002 “Appeal of Beaver Falls Library” (2003), applying Education Law §259(1).

[20] Check out their guide “School Districts and Taxes for Public and Association Libraries: How the Partnership Works” at www.nysl.nysed.gov/libdec/libs/sdtaxes.htim.

[21] I would spend a paragraph or two on what “the unexpected” is, but of course, we can’t expect it!  That said, a good look at Education Commissioner Decisions numbers listed in these vast footnotes answer can give you a flavor.

[22] I just finished his autobiography, “Man of the House.”  An interesting read, and a great primer for anyone wanting an abject lesson about local, state, and national politics. 

[23] Taking care to abide by all restrictions and best practices for libraries and political activity.

Tags: Municipal Libraries, Taxes, Voting

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