For the second time in as many months, the Riverhead school board has voted down a resolution to formally support the Family Community Life Center’s proposal.
Board members Kim Ligon, who requested the revote, and Greg Meyer were the only board members to vote in favor of the resolution at Tuesday’s meeting. Board vice president Amelia Lantz and board members Ann Cotten-DeGrasse and Chris Dorr cast dissenting votes.
Board president Sue Koukounas, who voted in favor during the July 7 meeting when the resolution was first introduced, abstained from voting this time around.
“School board resolutions do not assist towns governments in deciding the use of lands,” Ms. Koukounas said as she read from a prepared statement. “Our community is a stakeholder and beneficiary of the school district and any financial proposal supported by the school district must be presented to the public as a proposition and approved by a public vote.”
Shirley Coverdale, president and CEO of the Family Community Life Center, has requested the school board approve a resolution in support of the project as the town reviews the development plan. Ms. Coverdale made the request after she gave a presentation about the proposal in January.
The Family Community Life Center includes apartments, an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, theater, media center, 24-hour adult and child day care services and more.
Ms. Lantz and Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said although they agree the proposal has good intentions, they’re concerned about how many students would enter the district as a result and how the district would pay to educate them if the complex is tax-exempt.
Board member Lori Hulse, who was absent from Tuesday’s meeting, had voted in favor of the resolution at the July 7 meeting. When reached for comment after the latest vote, Ms. Hulse said she believes the district’s administration should have declined to have Ms. Coverdale give a presentation about the project “if it believed it wasn’t the school board’s purview to consider.”
“Now that it’s before us, I don’t believe denying to support it based on ‘too much taxable development’ is a legitimate argument,” she said. “We don’t have veto power over the many subdivisions that have come into our town, so we’re going to cite that as the reason to not support? It seems disingenuous.”
Ms. Coverdale and her husband, the Rev. Charles Coverdale of First Baptist Church, both addressed the school board during the public comment portion of the meeting and said they believe the district should embrace the plan since it will benefit the community.
The Rev. Coverdale said the idea for the proposal came about nearly two decades ago from a group comprised of representatives from local community organizations, including the East End Arts Council and Girl Scouts.
“What bothers me sometimes is I’ve never seen an effort so greatly involved with the entire community — black, white, Hispanic — and come together to say ‘This is what we need,’” he said about the planning efforts. “Although it might be spearheaded with pulling all of those organizations together by African Americans, doesn’t mean this is an African American project.
“I hope you’ll bless it with your names and your votes and not be against it for some reasons unbeknownst to us.”
Following the Rev. Coverdale’s remarks, board member Chris Dorr said he was “bothered with how much of this [discussion] was brought up about race.”
“This is not a race issue at all,” he told the Rev. Coverdale. “This is a financial issue. You talk about the benefits the life center will bring, but you don’t talk about the financial strain it will also cause.
“The first thing that’s going to be built is the housing,” Mr. Dorr continued, “and if the money runs out with the housing, then the other part will never be built and we’ll end up with housing and students that we have to educate without any retribution.”
After the vote, former school board member Butch Langhorn said he believes the district has made a “major mistake.”
“For years, Riverhead has needed something like this,” he said. “When you talk about having an increase of students, you’re probably right. But still, the matter is you need something for people to do in Riverhead.”
Speaking as an assistant in the Suffolk County Sheriff’s office, Mr. Langhorn said he believes the project will help reduce the amount of young people turning to a life of crime.
“Here’s something that can help everybody, not just Riverhead — for all of Eastern Long Island,” he told the school board. “But yet there’s still something saying ‘Turn it down.’ I don’t know what’s in your minds when you think of that.”
Photo: Riverhead school board member Chris Dorr at Tuesday’s meeting. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)