A Timothy Hill charter school could cost district, Riverhead officials warn

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Timothy Hill Children's Ranch executive director Thaddaeus “Thud” Hill spoke at Tuesday night's Riverhead school board hearing.

Supporters of a Timothy Hill charter school in Riverhead made their presence known at Tuesday night’s public hearing.

But some residents and Riverhead school officials said that while they supported Timothy Hill’s mission, they were concerned mandatory fees owed to the charter school would cost the public school district too much.

The Timothy Hill Community Charter School was proposed last month by Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, a nonprofit home for abused or neglected boys on Middle Road, which plans to build a charter school on its property.

The school would teach students from grades 7 through 12 and would open for the Fall 2013 school year on a five-year initial run, according to the school’s application. Students would be selected by lottery to enter the school.

The public hearing was held before the Riverhead school board meeting Tuesday, and drew out parents and residents from Riverhead and elsewhere who praised the Timothy Hill organization for its work and approved of more educational choices for parents.

“I do think they have the environment and training… to be able to help kids with unique challenges,” said Max Chance, of Mattituck, “I’d love to see the option here in Riverhead.”

Other members of the public welcomed the idea of having a choice for parents to decide where to send their children.

“I love the Riverhead School District, I think you do a great job, but I do believe strongly in parents having some type of choice in their child’s education,” said Rick Saladon, a pastor at the Living Water Full Gospel Church.

Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch executive director Thaddaeus “Thud” Hill also spoke at the hearing, and “wished to extend an olive branch” to work with the school board to make the charter school less of a burden.

“I very much welcome the opportunity to work with the school board as much as it is possible to be able to serve the kids within this community,” Mr. Hill said.

However, some questioned whether the district could handle the financial strain of supporting the proposed charter school. Due to state regulations, the district must pay $17,000 to the charter school for each student from the district who attends the school, to pay for transportation, tuition and other costs. The district paid $1,705,828 to the Riverhead Charter School this year to accommodate its students from Riverhead, school officials said.

The Timothy Hill Community Charter School is projected to house 55 students during its first year and will max out at 210 by the end of its term. Though not all the students would come from within the Riverhead district, critics of the proposal said the effect of the school could still reach into the millions.

“I think the community needs to realize that it may be wonderful to offer alternatives to students … it’s just the funding,” said Riverhead teachers’ union president Barbara Barosa. “It’s going to come from the Riverhead taxpayers to run another high school within our school system.”

Other residents voiced concerns over the effects the cost would have on the district.

School board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse, speaking on behalf of the board, said that the district supported Timothy Hill’s mission, but cautioned that due to the state-mandated tax levy cap, the district has already been forced to cut millions from its budget. The charter school’s payments would have to be factored into next year’s budget.

“We do have to realize this is going to take funds from the district,” she said.

The school board does not rule on the approval of the charter school, but may make recommendations to the State Education Department.

The board will also pass along comments made by residents at the hearing to the state to help them make a decision, and added that residents can still write letters to the state department voicing their approval or concerns about the charter school if they wish to.

It was not immediately clear when the state would rule on whether to accept or deny the charter school’s application.

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