Budget’s next stop: the voters

Spending will increase by 1.99 percent under the proposed 2010-11 Riverhead school budget the school board unanimously approved Tuesday.

The $108 million budget, $2.1 million higher than 2009-2010 budget, will go to voters May 18.

How it would affect taxes is still unknown. Since the state Legislature has yet to adopt its budget, the district doesn’t know yet how much state aid it will get.

“It’s April 13th, and we do not have a state budget,” Michael Ivanoff, the school district’s assistant superintendent for business said Tuesday. The state budget is supposed to be adopted by April 1.

The estimated tax levy is $82.7 million, or about 2.56 percent higher that last year, Mr. Ivanoff said.

“We’re in very good shape, especially when I see what our contiguous districts came in with, in terms of numbers,” said Superintendent Diane Scricca. “This budget has been revised and examined and analyzed over and over again, and I believe it’s very responsible to the taxpayers.”

About 20 teachers have accepted a new retirement incentive package being offered, which has enabled the district to lower the proposed spending increase, Dr. Scricca said.

If the budget were to be rejected by voters, the contingency budget the district would have to adopt could not raise spending, since that number is based on the Consumer Price Index, which this year is at zero, according to Mr. Ivanoff. However, contractual increases are among the items that are exempt from that cap, he said, so the total maximum increase allowed under a contingency budget could be about 1.5 percent, he said.

While the tax levy is the total amount of taxes raised through the entire district, tax rates, which for the Riverhead district differ in the towns of Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven, are another story.

Tax rates are not likely to be finalized until the fall, and are influenced by the state’s equalization rate, a formula used to divvy up how much of the levy is paid by residents in each of the three towns.

For the past two years, residents in the Southampton Town portion of the district have seen 14 percent school-tax-rate increases, while residents in Riverhead Town saw increases of just 1.2 percent and 2.7 percent for the same period. The overall tax levy in those two years increased by 3.98 percent and 2.40 percent, respectively.

Another factor that has influenced school tax rates in the Southampton Town portion of the district is the Southampton Town Board’s decision to cut back on the amount of tax relief payments it makes to district residents through the Community Preservation Fund. The town plans to reduce that amount by $200,000 per year for 10 years, citing past overpayments that need to be paid back to the fund, and lower revenues.

The May 18 school voting in Riverhead will take place between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. in the high school gym. A budget hearing is scheduled for May 11 at 8 p.m. in the school’s cafeteria.

In addition to the budget, the May 18 ballot will include board elections for the seats currently held by Mary-Ellen Harkin and Christine Prete, as well as a special proposition to authorize the spending of $1.34 million to install an elevator and a new roof on the Roanoke Avenue school. The district already has that money, which is part of a voter-approved capital reserve fund, but needs voter approval for specific use of it.

Ms. Harkin has said she’s running for re-election, and as of Tuesday Ms. Prete was collecting signatures on her nominating petition. Amelia Lantz, who ran for the school board last year, has said she’s running again this year. The petitions are due Monday.

STAR Academy shining

The STAR Academy, formerly known as the Alternative School, now boasts better attendance, lower dropout rates, fewer suspensions and higher percentages of students going to college in the two years it’s been in place, officials said Tuesday.

The dropout rate went from 17 percent to 4 percent in the past three years, while the attendance rate jumped from 70 percent to 86 percent, according to Peter Huszagh, one of the STAR Academy teachers.

Likewise, in 2007-08, Alternative School students had 163 in-school suspensions and 87 out-of-school suspensions, compared with 39 and 60 for STAR Academy students so far in the 2009-10 school year, he said.

Already, 19 STAR Academy students have been accepted to college this year, while just three students were accepted to college in 2007-08, the final year of the Alternative School. The percentage of seniors going to college from the STAR Academy jumped from 18 percent in 2007-08 to 100 percent in 2009-10, according to Mr. Huszagh.

The district moved the school back to the high school campus in 2008, gave it a new name, and took steps to integrate the students with the high school, said high school principal David Zimbler.

It used to be housed in rented space on East Main Street.

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