Residents in the Riverhead and Shoreham-Wading River school districts gave their administrations a vote of confidence Tuesday, approving proposed spending plans in both communities with two additional ballot propositions also receiving support in Riverhead.
In Shoreham-Wading River, the budget was approved by a historically high percentage of voters. In Riverhead, a recent trend of declining voter turnout hit new lows.
Though they took separate paths to get there, administrators in both districts were pleased with the end results, which showed substantial victories for supporters of educational spending.
Voters handily approved Riverhead’s proposed budget of $144.4 million, with 1,468 residents tallying a yes vote to 806 in opposition. That means 64.5% of district voters supported the spending plan, which represents a 2.88% spending increase and a tax levy hike of about 2.21% over the current year.
“I would just like to thank the community for their ongoing support and for always doing what’s in the best interest for the students,” said Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez, who also expressed gratitude for the school board.
If there was any concern heading into the vote that the recent reassignment of high school principal Charles Regan following allegations of “sexual assault” by an 18-year-old senior student would lead to an avalanche of voter frustration, Tuesday’s results seem to suggest the opposite. The total of 2,274 residents who voted on the budget proposition is the lowest voter turnout for Riverhead schools since at least 1996 and reflects a 7% decline from a year ago.
If there was any example of voter dissatisfaction at all in Riverhead Tuesday it was unrelated to the recent controversy and it came in the vote for Board of Education, where incumbent Elizabeth Silva was the lowest vote-getter among four candidates with just 845 tallies. Ms. Silva served just one year on the board.
But further supporting the notion that residents are generally satisfied with the direction of the district, fellow incumbent Laurie Downs was re-elected as the top vote-getter with 1,155 votes. Ms. Downs, who was first elected in 2016, will now serve a second three-year term.
“I got a second term and I thank everybody for the support,” she said. “I’ll try not to let them down. I’m going to stay behind my beliefs, I just hope that I make people happy and they are pleased with what I’m doing.”
Prior to first being elected to the school board three years ago, Ms. Downs was a frequent attendee of board meetings, having sat in the audience for nearly every session of the board for more than 15 years. She lost her first two bids for school board in those years.
Ms. Downs will now be joined on the board by newcomer Matt Wallace, who secured 1,148 votes. Fellow challenger Jerome Bost came up just 115 votes shy of securing the second seat.
“We had a nice, clean campaign with everybody, I had good conversations with Laurie and Elizabeth and I’m just looking forward to getting the ball rolling, working with the board and seeing how the next three years go,” Mr. Wallace said.
Asked about his top priorities, Mr. Wallace said programming and security.
“Over the last year, it has improved tremendously anyway with all the security doors and the windows and all so I’m happy to see that,” he said.
Ms. Silva said despite the defeat Tuesday that she’ll still be a presence in the district.
“I told my daughters, que sera, sera — what will be will be and everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I will now be on the other side.”
Two additional ballot propositions were also approved in Riverhead Tuesday.
The first — 1,455 yes votes to 797 no — will spend $3.9 million on a five-year plan to purchase about 44 new diesel-, propane- and gasoline-powered school buses.
In 2007 and 2014, voters authorized a program to purchase school buses and retire old vehicles. District officials said the funds allocated under those authorizations have been spent.
The district has negotiated with five bus manufacturers and determined that vehicle prices will hold steady for all five years, but the prices are subject to change if state mandates are modified.
The second ballot proposition — approved 1,706 to 558 — will spend $275,000 from the Cafeteria Capital Reserve for cafeteria-related projects. At the high school, that will fix the walk-in refrigerator, replace doors and improve the loading dock. At the middle school, the project will convert a dry goods storage area into a walk-in freezer and improve the kitchen entryway.
The Cafeteria Capital Reserve was approved by voters May 2018. Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said the reserve, which has $400,000, is funded solely through the cafeteria program itself and does not rely on taxpayer money, and voters must approve specific expenditures from the reserve fund.
Top caption: School board winners Laurie Downs and Matt Wallace.
Shoreham-Wading River residents approved the district’s proposed $75.9 million budget by a historically wide margin, with 1,129 residents voting in favor of the spending plan to just 329 opposed.
The budget was approved by 77.4% of voters, a fraction higher than what administrators called a record approval a year ago.
The new spending plan represents a 1.57% increase over the current year’s budget.
“I’m very grateful to the community for coming out and voting and supporting the budget,” said Superintendent Gerard Poole. “We can keep our wonderful world-class opportunities for our students and we’re able to add a few things next year that I think are going to be really exciting for our community and our students, so I’m really grateful for that.”
The Shoreham-Wading River budget has now been approved on the first go-round 10 for consecutive years — a first for the district since the Shoreham Nuclear Plant closed prior to the 1987 budget vote, a move that had significant tax levy implications and required state intervention to keep school taxes down for homeowners. The board’s adopted spending plan was defeated the following school year and nine times overall in the two decades that followed.
Now sustained support for school spending will lead to new initiatives, district officials said Tuesday.
Mr. Poole pointed to an expansion of the district’s 1-to-1 program and the addition of electives, including a healthy living program, among the ways money will be spent next school year.
“We’re [also] adding a new athletic program, a unified athletic program for students with disabilities to participate in a basketball league with referees, additional security enhancements to the school system, cameras on our buses, a new band shell for the high school,” he said. “We’re going to be able to have a full review for our fine arts program that’s in the budget for next year, as well as additional clubs at the elementary level. They’ve been very popular for our families and students, so we’re able to add a few more clubs at those levels, which is great, extend the school day with some extraordinary opportunities.”
Two newcomers were the top vote-getters in the Board of Education election in Shoreham-Wading River. Meghan Tepfenhardt with 744 votes and Thomas Sheridan with 691 votes will both serve three-year terms.
“I’m happy to serve the community. Numbers are always difficult to predict. I was just open to whatever it was,” Ms. Tepfenhardt said. “And if I couldn’t serve the community in this capacity, I would have in another capacity. I’m involved in the PTA heavily.”
Mr. Sheridan said he feels “great for the community.”
“We had six great candidates run. The community involvement was terrific,” he said. “I look forward to being a contributor and an advocate for the students in the district … Glad the budget passed. Obviously, that’s number one.”
Incumbent board president Michael Lewis was the third highest vote-getter at 652 votes and will serve out the final year of recently resigned board member Erin Hunt.
“The last three years [saw] a lot of positive movement in the district and I was hopeful the community saw that and elected me for at least, it looks like, one more year,” he said, adding that continuing with the district’s strategic development plan, completing bond work and continuing to enhance security will be among top goals for his next year on the board.
As for the rest of the candidates, at 6 feet, 10 inches it’s not often former SWR board member William McGrath is said to come up short, but with 603 votes he was only 49 tallies behind Mr. Lewis for the third seat in his bid to get back on the board. Fellow challengers Jennifer Kitchen (568 votes) and Edward Granshaw (471) also failed to gain enough support to secure a seat.
With so many candidates involved, Shoreham-Wading River also saw an uptick in voter turnout Tuesday. The 1,458 votes cast was the second highest turnout of the past six years — only in 2017, when a controversial school trip led to the ouster of a majority of incumbent school board members and a narrow budget win, did more residents head to the polls than this year.
Of all 124 Long Island districts, only Wyandanch, which sought to pierce the state’s property tax cap, was rejected Tuesday.