Sparks fly after voters approve Riverhead school budget

Emotions were running high after Tuesday night’s school vote tallies, which saw Riverhead School District residents pass the proposed $108 million budget by a margin of 57 to 43 percent.

The 2010-11 school budget increases spending by 1.99 percent over this year.

The vote also saw Riverhead Board of Education incumbents Christine Prete, who has served for six years, and Mary-Ellen Harkin, who has served for 12, handily defeated by challengers Amelia Lantz and Jeffrey Falisi for the two open seats.

Those results led a tearful Superintendent Diane Scricca to charge that the new candidates — favored by the district’s teachers union — might not serve in the best interest of the kids.

“To say I’m disappointed that the incumbents didn’t come in is an understatement,” she said moments after the results were announced in the Riverhead High School gym. “[The new board members] will have to prove that it’s about children, not the teachers union.”

Her comments drew a sharp response from the school board members-elect. And the union president.

“The teachers union did not put me in,” Mr. Falisi, 42, of Baiting Hollow told the News-Review. “I am in bed with no one.”

Ms. Lantz, who was congratulated after her big win with a parade of hugs and handshakes, said her only agenda will be to push for fairness, and that she does not owe anything to the union, or to anyone who endorsed her.

“That holds no weight,” she said of Dr. Scricca’s assertions, adding that her contact with the union, called the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, was limited to a survey she filled out after announcing her candidacy.

After the vote, union president Barbara Barosa denied the group endorsed any of the five candidates, though she admitted the union did favor Mr. Falisi and Ms. Lantz.

Ms. Barosa attributed the apparent upsets to a community frustrated with the current board and administration, including the superintendent.

“They are tired of the negativity, the acrimony, the heavy-handedness and reign of terror that have existed since Dr. Scricca has been here,” she said.

Ms. Lantz tallied 1,673 votes, with Mr. Falisi garnering 1,641 votes. Ms. Harkin received 1,340 votes and 1,145 people voted for Ms. Prete. Challenger Mary Meyer trailed the pack with 690 votes.

As for the new budget, it will increase the amount raised by taxes by 2.57 percent over this year. School officials could not estimate the budget’s impact on tax rates because the district is split among three towns. Those figures won’t become available until fall.

The number of people who voted in favor of the budget was 2,079, with 1,571 voting against it. No cuts in major sports or other programs were proposed, though it’s still unclear exactly how much money in state aid the district may or may not lose.

The budget plans for a $1.5 million cut in state aid, and Dr. Scricca, who will retire in July, has vowed not to increase spending if that number rises.

Residents also approved a proposition to authorize the expenditure of $1.34 million in capital reserve funds for an elevator and new roof at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School, with 2,094 voting in favor of the move and 1,315 voting against it. The district already has the funds in its capital projects reserves, but needed voter approval to move forward with construction.

For Riverhead resident Antonio DeGrasse, voting yes on the proposition and the budget was a no-brainer. “I think kids who are physically disabled should have access to an elevator,” said Mr. DeGrasse, who is a former Riverhead school administrator and whose wife, Ann, sits on the school board. “The next generation should have a decent facility and a fair shake to do well.”

Amy Fidelli of Riverhead, whose son attends Roanoke Avenue Elementary and who also voted yes on the budget and the proposition, agreed with Mr. DeGrasse.

“There’s so much that needs to be done,” she said.

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