05/22/13 2:00pm
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Tony Yarusso of Riverhead was one of the last people to cast his vote a a minute before 9 p.m.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Tony Yarusso of Riverhead was one of the last people to cast his vote at Riverhead High School at a minute before 9 p.m. Tuesday.

The Riverhead Central School District’s budget proposal passed 1,520 to 1,252 on Tuesday.

Though the voter turnout was about the same as last year’s vote, the results were much closer than in 2012, when the budget passed by nearly 700 votes.

Voters cast their ballots at four polling locations across the Riverhead area: Aquebogue Elementary School, Phillips Avenue Elementary School, Riley Avenue Elementary School and Riverhead High School.

Of the four voting locations, only a majority of Phillips Avenue voters cast ballots against the budget. Most absentee voters also voted no.

The biggest margin of victory for the budget proposal was at Aquebogue Elementary School, where about 63 percent of voters favored the budget.

There were two related propositions on the ballot. One was a proposal to establish a capital reserve fund to help build a new school bus maintenance facility. The other involved a plan to buy property in Riverside to help establish the facility.

While the first proposal was accepted, the proposition to buy the Riverside properties was defeated.

Phillips Avenue voters rejected both propositions by wide margins, while the land-buy proposal only found support at the Riley Avenue polls, where it came ahead by a single vote.

Newcomer to the board Chris Dorr took home most of the votes in two of the four polling places, raking in 423 votes in Aquebogue and 209 votes at Phillips Avenue. He came in second at the high school polling place by six votes, and only came in last at Riley Avenue.

Board member Amelia Lantz won re-election, while incumbent Jeff Falisi was voted out of office.

For a full breakdown of the vote results by polling place, see below:

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05/20/13 4:01pm
Carney of Riverhead

FILE PHOTO | Superintendent Nancy Carney and board president Anne Cotten-DeGrasse.

The Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River 2013-14 school budget proposals that go to voters next Tuesday contain year-to-year tax levy increases that, while above 2 percent, fall below the individualized state-mandated tax increase caps for each of the districts.

Officials in these districts took different approaches to staying under their respective caps.

In Riverhead, the district offered a $20,000 incentive package that led to the retirement of some 20 long-tenured teachers (along with 11 other staffers), saving the district, which can replace them with entry-level educators, about $1 million. This is the first year since the 2009-10 budget — the first crafted after the bottom fell out of the U.S. economy — in which the district hasn’t proposed eliminating several positions through layoffs or attrition. While trimming what was likely a bloated staff was a positive side-effect of the economic downturn, the continued shedding of teachers and support staff risked adversely affecting student performance, and it’s good to see it fi nally halted.

Riverhead’s $117.6 million budget carries a 5.12 percent spending increase over this year and a proposed 3.82 percent tax levy hike over the current year. If approved, the budget will maintain staffing levels and programs.

Ditto in Shoreham-Wading River, where the proposed budget will also preserve classroom and extracurricular programs. This would be accomplished by pulling extra funds, to the tune of $4 million, from the district’s state aid reserves and applying other one-shot revenues amounting to another $1.7 million. Shoreham-Wading River residents will be voting on a $66.1 million budget that carries a 5.5 percent spending increase with a 2.29 percent tax levy bump. The reserves — plus some budgeting adjustments involving planning for federal grant funds — allowed for a tax levy increase proposal much lower than the spending increase.

The Shoreham-Wading River district is borrowing heavily from its reserves for the second year that it’s been forced to operate under a tax cap. The thinking may be that the economy, and thus aid packages, will become more robust as the years progress and the district would have weathered the storm without having to shed staff and programs. These are rainy day funds, after all, and it’s raining, officials could argue. But should the economy remain sluggish —— or worse, contract — Shoreham-Wading River could be forced to make the same tough decisions Riverhead school officials have been making since 2009-10, but at the expense of future students over current students. It’s too early to sound any alarms in Shoreham-Wading River, but moving forward, officials and taxpayers should keep an eye on the state of the district’s reserves.

As for the main factor driving spending increases, districts across Long Island have been slammed in recent years not only with steady staff salary increases but also with huge spikes in pension fund contributions. Under state law, when public worker pension fund investments underperform, it’s up to local districts to make up the difference because the pension’s guaranteed. Contribution rates are calculated using a fi ve-year average of stock performance. The current five-year calculation bracket began in 2008, so recent stock market gains should ease the pain in coming years.

Given the challenges, the area’s two districts are presenting manageable plans that fall within the realm of what’s being offered elsewhere in the state, where the average proposed tax levy increase is 4.6 percent, and county, where the average proposed increase is 3.5 percent.

Voters should approve these budgets, but school officials should take care to keep spending increases below 5 percent moving forward, lest they harm the communities they seek to serve.

The economy is still sluggish, and taxpayers’ salaries are not keeping pace.

Two propositions on the Riverhead School District ballot involve replacing the district’s dilapidated bus barn, which houses the transportation and maintenance departments.

Proposition No. 1 asks to establish a Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund that can reach $10 million over 10 years. Ballot Proposition No. 2 will ask permission to use part of the proceeds from a farmland preservation sale involving district-owned property on Tuthills Lane to buy two Riverside properties near the proposed site of the new bus facility.

These propositions should both be rejected, mainly because they were just announced in March without school officials actively seeking input from the residents in Riverside and elsewhere.

If the district is looking to replace what it describes as a crumbling bus barn, and expand its athletic fields, it must involve the public in figuring out how to do so.

04/29/13 3:00pm
Chris Dorr and Riverhead School Board

COURTESY PHOTO | Chris Dorr is running against two incumbent school board members in this month’s at-large election for two seats.

Baiting Hollow parent Christopher Dorr, the challenger running against two incumbents for a seat on the Riverhead school board, says he knows all too well about the ins and outs of state-mandated student assessments.

He’s a Nassau BOCES data coordinator who analyzes student tests, staff evaluations and handles state reporting for schools in Nassau. In the midst of new assessment and teacher evaluation mandates coming from Albany, Mr. Dorr believes his skills would be a great asset to the Riverhead School District.

“I do believe some testing is needed, because sometimes students may fly under radar in the classroom,” he said. “These tests help to pick them out.”

The downside to the current state-assessment model, Mr. Dorr said, is it involves “over testing” students and is tied to teacher evaluations.

He believes the best way to gauge how teachers are performing is to have them evaluated solely by “the people that know them best,” such as their principals, peers and students.

The parent of a senior high school student and 10-year-old twins said he’s thought about running for school board for awhile and decided to jump in the race now because he wants to make sure quality education is maintained.

“I don’t think budget constraints should be the reason to cut programs,” he said. “We have to find a way around that.”

Mr. Dorr will face incumbents Jeff Falisi of Calverton and Amelia Lantz of Riverhead. There are two seats carrying three-year terms up for grabs on the seven-member board.

While he understands challenging current school board members is difficult, he believes he has a good chance of winning the race.

“I know it’s tough running against incumbents, but that could be plus for me,” he said. “I’ll be able to provide a fresh set of eyes.”

The 2013-14 school board and budget vote is scheduled for May 21.

jennifer@timesreview.com

03/20/13 6:00am
Riverhead bus barn

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The bus barn on Harrison Avenue is used for mini-bus storage and houses the Riverhead School District’s transportation and maintenance departments.

Riverhead School District officials are hoping to set in motion a long-term plan that would see the district’s dilapidated bus barn at its main campus leveled and replaced with a new garage and maintenance facility outside Phillips Avenue School in Riverside.

And officials are taking the piggy bank approach.

The school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to add two propositions to the coming May 21 budget vote, both involving replacement of the bus barn off Osborn Avenue, which houses the transportation and maintenance departments and was first built in 1920 as a barn for horses.

“The garage is in extraordinarily bad repair and will be condemned in the future,” Superintendent Nancy Carney said at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. “As a district it’s our responsibility to have a plan going forward. We don’t want to be shortsighted.”

The first proposition will ask voter permission to establish what Ms. Carney described as a savings account, which will appear in Proposition No. 1 on the ballot as a Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund that can reach $10 million over 10 years.

The reserve fund’s first big cash infusion, officials said, would come in the form of proceeds from district-owned farmland on Tuthills Lane in Aquebogue.

The district acquired 27 acres on the east side of Tuthills Lane for $34,000 in 1965 with the intention of building a school there, according to News-Review archives. That never happened, and a plan unveiled in 2008 to build a YMCA and bus barn on the property never came to fruition either, due to opposition from neighbors.

The district is now planning to sell development rights at the land to Suffolk County, a measure that would ensure the property can only be used for agricultural purposes. After that happens, and Ms. Carney is confident it will, the district would sell the actual property to a private farm operation.

Although a potential sales price was not disclosed, the board in May 2012 unanimously approved a resolution agreeing to sell development rights at the property to the county for $1.3 million.

“This is a long-term plan [involving] the sale of the property at Tuthills,” Ms. Carney explained to the board and meeting attendees Tuesday night. “I did meet with [Suffolk County Legislator] Al Krupski last week to talk about” the county acquiring the development rights.

“He’s very hopeful to introduce legislation to do so,” she said.

The reserve fund would also be added to through other means as the years progress, and as board members allocate money and plan future budgets.

A second pitch that will go to voters in May, called Ballot Proposition No. 2, also involves the bus barn and Tuthills Lane land proceeds.

That proposition will ask for permission to use Tuthills money to purchase two properties adjacent to Phillips Avenue Elementary School for no more than $480,000 combined.

One property was described by Ms. Carney as a largely useless (development-wise) 1.4-acre “paper road” that would be purchased for no more than $55,000, and the other is for an adjoining 1.5-acre parcel in what’s called Riverside Enterprise Park — a small industrial park at the site of the old Flanders drive-in theater property. According to the proposition, that would be purchased for no more than $425,000.

Although district officials don’t plan to build anything on these properties, the district needs them if school officials want to move forward with plans to build a new garage for its bus fleet at Phillips Avenue Elementary School property.  The school buses leaving the facility would need to cross the two properties in order to reach Enterprise Zone Drive, which encircles the industrial park, and then make their way to Route 24, officials said.

Ms. Carney said the district does not want to be running buses through residential areas, and this route would be all-industrial land.

She also stressed the propositions are all about planning, and nothing would be happening overnight.

“One of the criticisms we’ve faced is that we as a district never had plans in place for long-term maintenance,” she said early on at the meeting in the Riverhead High School auditorium. “And the bus garage was something that was taken out of the [voter-approved $78 million infrastructure improvement bond]. Through this, we will be able to have a saving plan as to what to do with the bus garage.”

But, she added, given the poor state of the bus barn, she hopes a new barn does get built much sooner than in 10 years.

The school board could also decide not to build a new barn on the Phillips Avenue property, she noted.

“So, as we go forward, we can decide to choose to sell the land [in Riverside],” she said, “but in the meantime we have established a plan that makes a lot of sense. It’s cost affective and won’t affect residents.”

Experts have informed school officials it would be cheaper to build a new garage rather than rehab the old barn, she said.

Resident Doreen Moore of Calverton, who toured the bus barn and other buildings during her time on the committee that helped hammer out the $78 million improvement bond proposition approved in 2011, spoke out in support of the plans for the bus barn.

“When I went through this building, I could not believe what I saw,” she recalled. “I really think the district is doing the right thing at putting this to the taxpayers at no expense.”

Ms. Carney also explained during a presentation that the athletic fields part of the Transportation, Maintenance and Athletic Fields Capital Reserve Fund name was included because district officials ultimately hope to use the property of the current bus barn for athletic fields.

Resident and school board watchdog Laurie Downs pointed out that the land is likely laden with pollutants.

“Absolutely,” Ms. Carney responded. “That’s been looked into in the overall cost. We don’t know what we’re going to find under there.”

Ms. Carney said the bus barn had fallen into such a bad state, and is “crumbling” mainly “because it doesn’t affect students directly.”

“It’s always something we’ve pulled out of the budget,” she said, adding small measures have been made to keep the barn usable and safe. “We have a very competent maintenance staff and we are constantly making sure [things are safe] and using Band-Aids.”

In other school board news, two seats on the seven-member Riverhead school board are up for re-election this year, those of Amelia Lantz and Jeff Falisi.

Applications to run for school board are available at the district office at 700 Osborn Avenue.

The deadline for the unpaid position is April 22. Terms run for three years.

mwhite@timesreview.com