06/29/12 7:00am
06/29/2012 7:00 AM

KATRINA LOVETT PHOTO | Walter Klapatosk at Sunday’s Cardboard Boat Race event downtown.

Local media outlets this week — with the help of their readers — have exposed a man we now know to be a serial storyteller who’s been creeping out Riverhead women for years.

His name is Walter Klapatosk and, thanks to the digital age, most everyone in town knows his face — and his modus operandi.

This all happened within days.

The ball got rolling at Sunday’s Cardboard Boat Race, where 25-year-old Amy Wesolowski was approached by a man later identified as Mr. Klapatosk. He told her he was Mike Love of the Beach Boys and convinced her he could pull some strings and get her on “American Idol,” she said.

Before she knew it — and at Mr. Klapatosk’s urging — she had jumped up on stage and told the crowd to vote for her during next season’s “American Idol.”

There was also a News-Review reporter standing by, recording it all with his camera.

Ms. Wesolowski declined to be interviewed after her announcement, saying she had promised an “exclusive” to a local news site. So we let the video do the talking at riverheadnewsreview.com, where we posted the footage after the event.

Ms. Wesolowski soon contacted us, saying she had been tricked by someone claiming to be Mike Love of The Beach Boys, and that she would not be appearing on “American Idol.” We then updated the online account of what had happened accordingly.

Frankly, we weren’t sure what to believe, but then we started hearing stories from readers that were similar to Ms. Wesolowski’s. Through Facebook, email and on our website, several women — some we knew personally, others we didn’t — said they, too, had encountered an older gentleman pretending to be Mike Love, actor Rusty Stevens from “Leave it to Beaver” or a Three Dog Night band member, at either Sunday’s races or other East End events.

“That same man was talking to me at the Cardboard Boat Race today,” one woman wrote on our website. “Told me he was Mike Love and that he had gotten a girl who performed at Vail-Leavitt into American Idol. He was quite the smooth talker.”

“He has been doing this for years!!!!” another woman wrote on the News-Review Facebook page.

Within a day, a reader had sent us a picture of the imposter. We posted it at riverheadnewsreview.com and asked for feedback. We had his name in just a few minutes. Soon enough, different photographs of the same man ended up on two other news websites as well.

Who in Riverhead doesn’t know who Walter Klapatosk is now?

He actually looks more like singer Kenny Rogers than the people he’s been pretending to be. Of course, he can’t go around saying he’s “The Gambler,” as anyone who grew up in a household that plays Christmas or country music knows exactly what Kenny Rogers looks like; his face is splashed across every one of his albums.

As just one member of an ensemble, Mike Love of The Beach Boys isn’t as easily recognizable; ditto Rusty Stevens. It’s easier for people — especially younger women — to believe that Mr. Klapatosk is these other characters. A few of our online readers who had met him admitted they had been taken in by his tall tales. So Ms. Wesolowski should find solace the fact that she is not alone.

There’s nothing illegal about spinning convincing stories. Generally speaking, there’s nothing illegal about making false promises and having people act on them. But that doesn’t stop those on the receiving end from feeling tricked.

Digital technology gets a bad rap, but technology and social media have helped make our streets a bit more comfortable today.

Mr. Klapatosk’s immediate family members say he’s been approaching young, attractive women with false stories and equally false promises for years, and without any serious repercussions.

Until now.

His reign of creepiness has been dealt a huge blow.

With his face being splashed everywhere, it will be a long time before Walter Klapatosk shows up again at a Riverhead event telling stories in an unusual bid for attention from women.

At least not without some people spotting him.

And running him out of town on a rail.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com.

06/22/12 1:00pm
06/22/2012 1:00 PM

NEWS-REVIEW FILE PHOTO | A scene from the 2010 races.

I don’t like to do stuff.

That doesn’t mean I sit on my couch all day. I enjoy puttering around like a recent retiree, tending to the pool and the lawn. I like to walk my dog down the block or to a neighbor’s house to play. I have a lot of friends and family in the area, so on weekends I’ll usually go to one of their houses or invite them over for a “Kan Jam” frisbee tournament.

I just don’t like to do stuff that involves packing, planning, booking, renting, meeting or waiting in a line.

Skiing? I’m actually really good at it, but it’s too much of a schlep. An upcoming ski trip would hang over my head like a date with the surgeon. As for concerts, birthdays or sporting events in the city, all I can think about is the traffic — or the sheer hell of running to catch a late-night train and then missing it.

Travel to New Jersey or Pennsylvania for just about any reason? Forget it. I dread having to visit Nassau County.

Flag football games start much too early for me; beach volleyball games go much too late.

But I’m only 33. Certainly I couldn’t have exhausted my life’s potential energy already. How am I going to feel when I’m 53?

Will I not want to leave my room?

Scary.

This is a long, roundabout way of saying I’m breaking out of my comfort zone this weekend. I’ll be racing — yes, racing, as opposed to wasting away — in Sunday’s third annual and immensely popular Cardboard Boat Race in downtown Riverhead. The festivities kick off at noon with the first race, the Youth Regatta, for participants 15 and under.

I’ll be rowing down the Peconic River in the headliner event, the last of four races. It’s called the Grand National Regatta. And it’s name is just way too ambitious for me.

What helps relieve my stress is that my rowing partner, Times-Review advertising executive Joseph Tumminello, has enough energy and enthusiasm for the both of us, even though he’s got more than 10 years on me. I can’t let him down.

We also have a company artist designing logos, a promotions team coming up with slogans and ordering T-shirts and another team of employees actually building the boat — using only cardboard and duct tape — down in the basement of company headquarters as I write this.

Everyone involved here is working hard and is really excited about the event. All I’m being asked to do is row. I don’t even have to pick out an outfit. I can do this.

And who knows? Maybe we’ll win and I’ll love the experience. Then maybe I’ll get addicted to events and activities, and turn my life around like those guys who go from the gutter to running marathons or scaling the world’s largest mountains. Except with me, I’ll just start doing normal things, stuff people should do anyway — like going to a Jets game or the water park or renting a house in Vermont with friends.

Vermont? But then I gotta pack. I gotta arrange to take time off. And who will drive? My car’s on its last legs.

Groan.

I’d better go check the pool skimmers.

Michael White is the editor of The Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200, ext. 152, or mwhite@timesreview.com.

03/24/12 10:00am
03/24/2012 10:00 AM

For those just catching up on the latest YMCA proposal and subsequent debate, here’s a crash course: the Peconic YMCA group is trying to purchase nine acres across from Vineyard Caterers on Main Road in Aquebogue, where it wants to build its long-dreamed-of Y facility. No official plans have been filed with the town as of yet. In fact, the YMCA does not yet even own the property. But some in Aquebogue and neighboring Jamesport are in an uproar and have launched a “Save Main Road” campaign similar to the “Save Wading River” movement on the other side of Riverhead Town. Both campaigns are designed to block what some locals and environmentalists consider inappropriate development projects proposed for their respective hamlets.

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of misinformation flying about from those for a YMCA and those against such a facility at this location. To help readers see through some of the smoke, I wanted to give each side a chance to answer some key questions that have arisen during the last few weeks, in a manner that doesn’t have to go through a reporter’s or editor’s filter on what to keep and what to cut.

I used this newspaper’s editorial coverage, reader comments posted on riverheadnewsreview.com and Facebook, and my own dealings with Peconic YMCA over the years to come up with the questions. I hope this helps in understanding the issues at hand.

Georgette Keller, Jamesport-South Jamesport Civic Association, president

Q: What do you think is the chief concern among those against this location for a Y?

A: Although we are all in support of a YMCA, the people of Save Main Road oppose this particular location. Ten years ago, the master plan severely restricted development on this stretch of the rural corridor to avoid the issues this project brings with it of traffic and the character of this area. Yes, there is a catering hall across the street but that’s why it’s even more important that this largely residential area doesn’t get further compromised by commercial-type development and huge structures. The Town Board recognized it then and planned for limited development because of it. We can’t just keep making exceptions left and right when anyone proposes a project and expect Riverhead to preserve its North Fork character and culture.

Q: Many at the ‘Save Main Road’ meeting spoke of keeping the land as ‘virgin forest.’ Is this really plausible?

A: Of course. That’s what we have the Peconic Bay Transfer Tax for, as well as many other nonprofit and community organizations on the East End, such as Peconic Land Trust, North Fork Environmental Council, and even the movement of Save What’s Left. The purpose of the RB-80 zoning is to preserve agricultural soils and to allow limited residential development. A virgin forest is certainly more in line with the goals of the zone than a 40,000 square-foot building would be, and if the Y doesn’t get built here then there’s still a chance that can happen.

Q: Where do you think a Y should be built?

A: I personally feel that the location adjacent to Stotzky Park is ideal. It provides an opportunity for future growth of the YMCA and the greatest access to all people, especially those that need the support of the YMCA’s services. The social issues in Riverhead will never be addressed if we do not build a better system of engaging our children as they grow. And teens need to be able to access the Y on their own. Can you really imagine teens on bikes on Main Road trying to get there independently? Besides, a downtown YMCA could help transform downtown Riverhead and revitalize the retail there, just as it did in Bay Shore. The YMCA’s Fritz Trinklein made a statement to that effect in the News-Review in 2009 and I definitely agree with him on that.

Q: Why do you think there’s more uproar over this Y than the Village at Jamesport, a proposed Main Road shopping center that will also need special permits from the Town Board?

A: There isn’t. There is significant opposition to both projects but the hearings and most of the activity on the Village at Jamesport project happened years ago and so it’s not fresh in everyone’s minds like this is. This proposed location for a YMCA is clearly inappropriate and does not conform to what’s allowed in RB-80 and so it is receiving quick opposition.

This is clearly another one of attorney Pete Danowski’s many attempts to subvert our Master Plan and zoning on behalf of one of his clients by playing semantics. He recently successfully petitioned the town to defy logic and say that wine tasting was a customary accessory to a craft store so that a new business on Main Road in Aquebogue can serve wine, and I think people are getting tired of it.

On the other hand, though the opposition to the Village at Jamesport has been going on for at least eight years, it’s not as clear-cut an issue. Village at Jamesport is looking for a special permit for uses that are actually allowed in the Rural Corridor Zoning, and opposition is based on the fact that this parcel has a different building allowance than what rural corridor allows for.

Q: Is there anything the Y can do to work with local residents who oppose this location for the project to get a facility built there?

A: No. The zoning does not support the use. Period. A special permit cannot be based on accessory uses. YMCAs are primarily recreational sports facilities, and this one may have educational pre-K classes as an accessory use but that doesn’t actually qualify it for a special permit. In fact, the Y offers many programs that are not allowable in RB-80 zoning, which would disqualify it for a special permit. Additionally, the zoning on the parcel does not support any possible future expansion for outdoor sports/an aquatic center as the Y claims it wants to do. The initial building phase (the indoor pool and facility) would use up all the lot coverage the Y allowed. This location makes no sense for the community or the YMCA, long term.

Fritz Trinklein, YMCA of Long Island, Inc., director of strategic planning

Q: One of the biggest criticisms of the YMCA is that it has never considered the heart of downtown as a possible location. Why the need for open space and camp facilities when we live in one of the most rural, open regions of Long Island? You can’t say kids around here don’t have room to run.

A: A YMCA needs outdoor space for its full compliment of programming. Summer day camp programs are key. The popular “Silver Sneakers” program for seniors (often funded by health insurance) and the “couch potato to 5K” program are examples of outside activities in a pleasant environment.

Introductory outdoor classes for youth, including soccer, golf, T-ball, volleyball and field hockey, are simplest when administered “on-site.” Personal training classes also use outdoor space for sprinting or longer distance running.

Eight acres is required to establish an optimal YMCA location. This makes a downtown location all but impossible, particularly within the Y’s $500,000 acquisition budget.

Traffic, proximity, and accessibility to the membership are other key factors for a successful YMCA. Ninety-nine percent of all participants need to be transported to the Y, regardless of where it is located. Of the approximate 40,000-person local population pool, a small segment drives through downtown on a regular basis (unlike Main Road). If a Y is located downtown, it would add new traffic to an already difficult-to-navigate area. Y members generally tend to travel up to 15-20 minutes to participate in programs. By the time a driver squirrels through downtown, many minutes are consumed driving a very short distance.

Furthermore, Y studies show less than 5 percent of YMCA members of a branch located in Riverhead would come from the downtown area, regardless of where it is located. The Y needs to be accessible to as many people as possible.

The number one expressed need by 80 percent of the entire population is an indoor swimming pool. And the remaining 20 percent virtually all agree a Y is needed. One population does not need a Y more than another.

Everyone will improve their sense of wellness by participating. Young, old; rich, poor; white, black; those in good health and those who have health struggles. Everyone.

Q: Do you have any idea about the potential traffic impacts on Main Road if the facility were to be built in Aquebogue?

A: Town Hall has recent hourly traffic studies for Main Road. The YMCA knows branch traffic. Most participants coming to a branch on Main Road would combine it with other errands, thereby not adding to traffic. Once full membership has been reached in 3 to 5 years, the Y’s preliminary analysis shows an average traffic effect of 2 to 3 percent.

Q: Opponents of the proposed location have floated other sites the Y might want to consider, namely the former North Fork/Capital One headquarters in Mattituck. Has the Y considered that property? What did it find?

A: Many sites have been suggested over the past decade. Each location introduces specific elements that have to be evaluated. Demographics play a large roll. A branch located east of Laurel would not have sufficient membership to achieve a balanced budget, which is the goal of all YMCAs on Long Island. Additionally, the priorities of those who have provided volunteer leadership and donor support need to be incorporated into the decision-making process.

The Peconic YMCA committee, which has been working tirelessly for over 15 years, has specified that the branch be located in the Town of Riverhead, accessible to all residents in the town.

Q: If this doesn’t happen in Aquebogue, does Peconic YMCA keep trying? Or does it pack its bags. I can’t imagine it has much left in its tank, frankly.

A: The Peconic YMCA committee, led by Joe Van de Wetering, has shown an incredible commitment to benefit town residents. Over these many years, each proposed location has created a reaction by a small group of local people who, although they universally agree with the benefits a YMCA would provide the community, have unfounded fears of the impact a YMCA would have on their specific neighborhood. The YMCA of Long Island has built a reputation of being good and friendly neighbors at all of its branch locations. For example, property values adjacent to a Y normally increase due to the existence of a Y.

Instead of giving up, Joe and the Peconic YMCA committee have taken extra measures to ensure the suitability of a potential location, by initially garnering the unanimous endorsement of the Town Board, the town planning department and the town attorney before pursuing it. Although some Town Board members vacillate and change their minds, the town supervisor and other consistent board members have shown strong leadership in standing by their word and endorsement.

Joe is supported by very publicly-minded, philanthropic individuals, who want to help the town become a healthier, happier place to live. In addition to the Van de Wetering family, the Entenmanns, Millers, and Goodales have committed leadership pledges of six figures or more to see this project succeed. We are motivated by the steadfastness of their support.

How long will this benevolence last? Even the most gracious people have their limits.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at (631) 298-3200, ext. 152 or mwhite@timesreview.com.

03/01/12 7:00am
03/01/2012 7:00 AM

TIM GANNON PHOTO | Frank Fish of BFJ Planning speaks to the audience at last week’s meeting on the effects of rezoning in Wading River.

One of my first assignments as a cub reporter was to cover a presentation on a feasibility study aimed at controlling flooding in Elkton, Md. The study cost the county $300,000, at a time when I was making $22,000. I couldn’t comprehend it. I worked day and night. What was so hard about a study? And what does feasibility mean anyway?

I figured out what it all meant, eventually. Locally elected leaders wanted to make it look as if they were doing something about flooding in Elkton. If you want to know how that effort is going, just Google “Elkton flooding” and watch the YouTube video that pops up.

Spoiler alert: It’s not going so well.

So when the Riverhead Town Board voted last year to spend $42,000 for a planning study in Wading River, I wasn’t too optimistic this was the answer to the prayers of so many people in the hamlet. What it was, really, was a chance for Town Board members to point to something come election time, when that little old lady at the debate asks, “What are you doing about overdevelopment in Wading River?”

“Well, you see, ma’am, we’ve commissioned this study …”

In reality, the study isn’t worth more than the paper it’s written on. Any zoning changes the study calls for likely won’t affect a single one of the five big development projects that have so many people in Wading River so concerned — concerned enough to pack St. John the Baptist Church and Town Hall for two presentations in recent weeks.

The Great Rock clubhouse expansion isn’t on Route 25A, to which the study is confined. The study doesn’t make recommendations for any Route 25A property west of the Wading River-Manor Road intersection, although a large commercial project called Venezia Square is planned for land there.

Developer Kenn Barra’s Knightland property at the Sound Avenue intersection wasn’t included in the study because a civic group has sued over the project’s Planning Board approvals. (Yes, for some reason the firm can’t give an opinion on what would be best suited for this land because a civic group has sued. Sounds like a cop-out to me, like someone somewhere finding a reason not to get too involved with potentially derailing this project.)

So what’s left to study, after the arbitrary reasons to not study too much? There’s the Zoumas property next to CVS, also slated for development, but the town already tried to rezone that land through its master plan. Mr. Zoumas sued to have the original zoning restored. He won. The town isn’t likely to try again to change his zoning.

Across from the Zoumas land are three contiguous pieces of farmland totaling 22 acres. A project called North Shore Country Plaza is planned for one of them and is probably heading to the town Planning Board before the Route 25A study is completed. What happens then if the town tries to change the zoning? Litigation like the kind Mr. Zoumas won.

That leaves just three properties on Route 25A truly subject to the study, maybe 15 acres in all, and on which no development is currently planned. And one of the three parcels is a 1.8-acre triangle of land just west of the Sound Avenue streetlight. I’m not sure there’s much to worry about with that piece.

So, when all is said and done, two developable chunks of farmland in Wading River may be rezoned (and there are likely to be protests over that rezoning as well, as civic leaders have expressed concern that proposed zoning would still permit too much development). And this is going to be done using expert suggestions that are costing Riverhead taxpayers $42,000. The town planners could have re-examined those parcels and proposed those changes in an afternoon.

But then, what to tell that little old lady?

Michael White is the editor of the Rivehead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or (631) 298-3200, ext. 152.

02/10/12 8:58am
02/10/2012 8:58 AM

This week’s News-Review cover package.

I know what many of you are probably thinking — at least those of you who’ve already read this week’s cover story. So before the letters even arrive, I’ll just admit to it. The News-Review calling out the Riverhead Police Department for not employing enough blacks or Hispanics is like the pot calling the kettle black (or in this case, white).

I’ve been here for almost four years, and in that time we’ve had one Hispanic in our employ, a Colombian paginator who didn’t contribute editorial content. The last black reporter to work in the newsroom here was Beverly Jensen — now a spokeswoman for Shinnecock Indian Nation — and I’m told that was well over 10 years ago.

We can sometimes go weeks without a photo of a local black or Hispanic person in the News-Review — outside of the sports section. How is that even possible in such a diverse town? The answer is simple. The all-white staff isn’t keyed in to the black and Hispanic communities. And despite our best efforts, the paper is journalistically lacking in this sense. Our coverage is supposed to reflect things happening in Riverhead. All of Riverhead. Under-representation of certain groups not only creates mistrust among readers, it’s bad for business. There are thousands of potential customers we fail to reach every day because, literally and figuratively, we don’t speak their language.

So what to do about it?

I’ve got a really good hold on the first crucial step: admitting there’s a problem. I know a good writer is a good writer regardless of race, but a writer from the black community has access to information I can’t get, stories I can’t unearth (or would have much more trouble unearthing). The same goes for the cops. A black or Hispanic police officer might have an easier time making inroads in Riverhead’s Latino community than a white officer — not just because the officer might speak Spanish, but because he “gets it,” so to speak.

So Supervisor Sean Walter’s denying there’s any problem with the East End’s least-white town having the whitest police force is part of the problem. It’s easy for someone to be colorblind — and say we need to start looking past race — when he’s part of the group on top, the group doing the policing. But really he’s just being blind. How can the town address an issue if those in its highest elected or appointed offices don’t think there’s an issue in need of addressing? In this sense, the News-Review is light-years ahead of the town.

The next step for the editors here would be crafting a plan to recruit a diverse newsroom. This is the tough part. And although the paper and the police force face different roadblocks, here is where we’re similar. There’s not much being done about achieving diversity. It’s a tough challenge. And neither organization has a plan in place. (Though I will maintain it’s more important for a tax-funded agency to reflect the demographics of its taxpayers than it is for a private, profit-driven enterprise.)

One of our biggest problems at the News-Review is that we’re always trying to make a quick hire. When someone tells the company he or she is leaving, we typically have two weeks to fill the position. And we are scrambling. This is a small shop, and being understaffed for any amount of time puts great stress on all of us.

Studies have found that publishing an ethnic newspaper is one effective way to reach non-white communities, but they’re expensive endeavors and quite often fail. (Think Newsday’s “Hoy” experiment.) They’re also hard to staff because of the need not only for a certain skill set — which is hard enough — but also for a specific ethnic background. Another way I found to achieve diversity is to develop internship programs through local schools and colleges, but around here, interns have often proven to be more trouble than they’re worth, given how much attention they need.

Achieving diversity on police forces or in newsrooms boils down to a matter of priorities, and how many resources an organization wishes to dedicate to achieve diversity amid so many other pressing concerns.

But talking about it, showing why it is something worth striving for, is the only way to start.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at 631-298-3200 or mwhite@timesreview.com.

09/15/11 12:15am
09/15/2011 12:15 AM

New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan took some heat last week for saying he so badly wanted to win Sunday night’s game against the Cowboys because of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I feel more pressure on this game for whatever reason than any game I’ve ever coached, seems like,” he had told members of the New York media.

TV and radio pundits responded by saying a football game and the senseless deaths of so many innocent people shouldn’t be mentioned — even thought about — together in the same sentence. After all, this was just a regular-season game, and Sept. 11 happened 10 years ago.

But I’ll say this: The Jets’ Sunday night come-from-behind victory really gave me and countless other Jets fans — I’m sure even some of those who lost loved ones in 9/11 – something to smile about on a day filled with sadness.

I spent the Sept. 11 anniversary at home, editing stories and photos on memorial events from across our coverage area. During a four- or five-hour chunk of that time, I watched CBS coverage of the heart-wrenching remembrances of those killed in the terror attacks as all the 9/11 victims’ names were read from two podiums at ground zero.

There were victims’ brothers and sisters, saying how backyard barbecues have never been the same in 10 years. There were the surviving mothers, vowing to join their sons or daughters one day in heaven. There were the wives, giving their lost husbands updates on their children’s lives, and trying their hardest to be strong. And then there were the kids, including teenagers and 20-somethings, most of whom struggled through tears as they spoke, while still calling their lost parent Mommy or Daddy; these are relationships frozen in time. Some of the children who spoke never even met their fathers.

But later, there was sport, that great diversion.

The Jets victory Sunday night reminded a lot of us of retired Mets catcher Mike Piazza’s Sept. 21, 2001, go-ahead home run against the Atlanta Braves. That was the first professional sports game played in New York after the terror attacks. Up until that moment, many didn’t even know if attending a game was even the right thing to do. But when Piazza hit that huge homer to left-center field, we cheered, surprising even ourselves. And it was a frenzied, cathartic cheer, both at Shea Stadium and in homes across the region.

It was prolonged, because we wanted to hold onto that unfamiliar feeling of feeling good.

In the days that followed, we were slowly able to laugh again. You want to communicate to your children the shock, anger, fear and anguish adults felt after Sept. 11? Tell them to imagine almost two weeks devoid of humor — pretty much like all of this past Sunday. That was, of course, until a combination of a goal line fumble, a blocked punt, an interception and a long field goal led to one of the most memorable come-from-behind Jets victories anyone could ever remember.

On the day spent mostly with a lump in my throat, I now grabbed a plush football and did my best John Elway impression in the living room. I dropped back and pump-faked a few times before letting the ball fly and sending my 5-month-old puppy slipping and sliding down the hardwood hallway after it.

I had lost myself.

And isn’t that what sports is all about, for the fans and athletes?

So thank you, Rex and the Jets, for taking Sunday night’s game so darn seriously. And for helping us, well, forget — if only for a moment.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.

03/02/11 3:34pm
03/02/2011 3:34 PM
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in the Riverhead School District.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON FILE PHOTO | Students at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in the Riverhead School District on Long Island.

Forget trigonometry or the definition of civilization or whatever the “present perfect” is.

Here’s what a successful student really learns in school: How to manage time; how to work toward a goal, either alone or in a group; why it’s important to treat others the way you want to be treated; and ­— not the least important — how to protect yourself from destructive forces. If a student is extremely lucky, he or she also might develop some sort of passion or begin to hone a talent during those countless hours spent sitting in or shuffling between classrooms.

Extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports and the subjects usually first on the chopping block during tough economic times — art, music and technology — are just as crucial as math, English and social studies. If not more crucial. Those often-cut portions of the school budget are what really motivate potentially at-risk children (and I would venture to say most all teenagers are at risk), keep them in school and help them reach that end goal: a decent life.

Those crucial areas need to be preserved, and students and parents in the Riverhead School District should be thankful their first-year superintendent, Nancy Carney, seems to value such activities as well. Her budget, as proposed, would result in 40 positions being lost next school year, including 15 teacher spots. But that burden is being shared equally and not on the backs of sports programs, the arts or extracurricular activities. And that’s how it should remain as a final budget proposal is hammered out to be presented to voters in May.

The fact is, history, grammar and mathematics are subjects that can be learned much more effectively later in life, when one finds oneself suddenly interested in or otherwise motivated to check out that Andrew Jackson biography, buy that grammar-made-simple book or enroll in those X-ray technician courses. The stuff most of us learn in high school goes largely forgotten, but sensibility lasts forever. In reality, forcing a kid to memorize parts of a sentence — the object, predicate and whatever else — does not result in young people becoming better writers. Sentence diagrams just result in agita and, unfortunately for lots of kids, a serious dislike of English class.

I’m not condemning those so-called core classes, or saying we convert our schools to trade schools. I think a little agita is a good thing. I recognize that traditional subjects are extremely important — not just because they prepare students for state tests, the SAT and for getting accepted into that “dream college,” but because they’re tough.

And life is tough.

School, like life, can’t be all fun and games and passion. In the real world, having to sit up straight and pay attention through boring presentations doesn’t mean getting a better grade. It means the difference between advancing in a company or getting fired, or somehow letting friends and colleagues down.

Public education’s end goal must be to develop as many motivated and well-rounded Americans as possible. That’s why AP Literature and Composition is no more important than, say, the bowling team. I just hope all of our school officials feel the same as they prepare to pare down budgets over the next few years. In the meantime, state and federal elected leaders will be facing a tough task in figuring out how to get our educational system on track while making it affordable and sustainable. Simply cutting important aspects of a true education is not a real option.

Michael White is the editor of the Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at mwhite@timesreview.com or 631-298-3200, ext. 152.