Host: New York City’s annual budget is more than 80-billion dollars… and the process of deciding out how that money is spent can be confusing. But each year, some regular New Yorkers get to decide how a little bit of that money is spent. It’s a process called “participatory budgeting.” Alissa Escarce visited an elementary school in Brooklyn to find out what one district has decided to spend its money on.
A few dozen fifth graders walk quietly down the aisles of the auditorium at Elsa Ebeling School in East Flatbush. They settle into wooden chairs start wiggling around. Teacher Jannice Louis says all the kids know is that they’re here for an assembly.
Louis : They weren’t really told what it was about, but that it was something special, and we had special guests coming in.
The special guest is City Council member Jumaane Williams. He represents District 45, which includes East Flatbush. He’s here to announce what voters in his district decided to spend one million dollars on when they voted in April. They got to choose between a ramp at the local library, new bathrooms at a community center, and a few other things… including a new computers for this school.
Kaitlyn Dior is a 5th grader here, and she says she would like that.
Dior 1: There’s, like, at least 15 computers that work, and there’s 32 in total, but there’s only 15 that work, so we’re really on and off of not using them.
The assembly starts, and the room goes quiet.
Principal ambi: Good morning boys and girls.
Crowd: Good morning!
There are three easels on the stage, each with a poster flipped backwards. The principal and a few school administrators talk to the kids about why voting is important. Then Council Member Williams goes to the front, and it’s time for the big reveal.
Williams ambi: you guys ready?
Crowd: Yes! (applause)
One by one, the Williams’ staff reveal the posters. And the project with the most votes? New computers.
A little over half of City’s fifty-one council members offer participatory budgeting. Williams was one of the first to sign on a few years ago.
Williams 1: The biggest thing that I do as a council member has to do with the budget. Unfortunately that’s the thing that folks understand the least and are engaged with the least. And so this is a way for people to understand how the budget process works.
This year the Council lowered the voting age, from fourteen to eleven. So a bunch of the kids in the crowd got to vote.
Williams 2: I think the earlier you get people, not just voting, but understanding why they’re voting, to see the connection directly between their voting and something happening, you can get more voters for life, more people engaged.
Kaitlyn, the 5th grader, turned 11 this year… so she got to vote.
Dior: I feel happy, I feel excited, I feel good about having my opinion being heard!
For a gradeschooler, being old enough to vote also means it’s time for middle school! So Kaitlyn won’t get to use the new computers. But –
Dior: I feel really happy for the little kids who are going to be able to use the brand new computers because of my opinion. And I feel good about that.
Across the city, voters decided between projects as varied as security cameras for public housing… to road resurfacing. Council members are expected to announce their winning projects in the coming weeks.
Alissa Escarce, Columbia Radio News.