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Riverhead schools will ask public to approve bond to purchase Mercy property

Riverhead school district officials are expected to pitch a bond referendum at the next school board meeting that will ask taxpayers to fund a purchase of the former Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, school officials announced Wednesday.

Following an executive session where district officials and representatives from BBS Architects discussed the acquisition of the McGann-Mercy property, board president Greg Meyer said the potential bond project would need to go to voters in January 2020 to stay in line with state and legal standards.

In addition to the McGann-Mercy purchase, the bond would ask the public to approve interior and exterior capital projects on school grounds — including upgrades to athletic facilities, roofs, windows, ventilation, bathrooms, kitchens and classrooms. If approved, the bond will eliminate and replace the district’s “portable units,” like the field house, pupil personal services and district offices, all constructed in the early 1970s, he said.

The bond would also help consolidate the pre-kindergarten program into one building. At this time, the program is spread throughout district buildings, he said.

District officials would also utilize the bond to close off the high school campus as a safety precaution, restricting students from leaving campus during school hours, Mr. Meyer said.

The district has a price estimate for the bond project, but Mr. Meyer did not provide it Wednesday. The bond amount, impact on taxpayers, and where the funds are allocated will be revealed during a full presentation at the Aug. 27 board meeting, he said.

“The board has narrowed the whole scope down,” he said. “I know, right now, exactly what that presentation is going to look like.”

The concept for the bond came after the district received results from an Eastern Suffolk BOCES study which showed projected enrollment would topple the district’s maximum capacity by 2023. That produced concern for district officials, Mr. Meyer said.

“In September of 2023 … we realized we won’t have room for students,” he said.

Enrollment in Riverhead has been on a steady incline in recent years. At an April board meeting, Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said student enrollment has increased and provided data that showed it nearly tripled for English language learners, or ELL students.

“We’re a growing district,” Mr. Meyer said Wednesday.

Riverhead taxpayers have not seen a similar bond project proposed in the district since 2011, when voters approved a $78.3 million bond project. That project was put forward by the Community Partnership for Revitalization Committee, which scaled down the initial $124 million plan that was denied by voters in February 2010.

When the bond was shot down, Mr. Meyer said, some of those renovations, like new bathrooms at Pulaski Street School, were cut from the budget. Now, he said, the renovations are urgent.

The district has been in contact with the Diocese of Rockville Centre regarding the status of the property since May 2018, Mr. Meyer said. The district’s facilities committee, which includes Mr. Meyer and other board representatives, have been meeting weekly to discuss the potential school property.

In August 2018, the chief operating officer and general counsel for the diocese, Thomas Renker, revealed that the diocese received an offer for the property in excess of $10 million last June.

In executive session, district officials also discussed the purchase price of McGann-Mercy and additional improvements that are necessary to the school, Mr. Meyer said.

“A lot of the private schools don’t have to meet the standards that New York State Education Department puts out,” he said. “Public school standards are higher, so now we have to consider the purchase price … and consider what improvements we have to do before we put a single student in there.”

District officials said in March that the district has not entered into a contract for the purchase of any real property, including Mercy.

“Should the district ever seek to acquire this property or any other parcel of real property, the voters of the district would have to approve such a purchase before it could take place,” the district said in a March email. “As part of that process, the district and the Board of Education would lay out their vision of how the potential acquisition would be used in future district operations.”

Board members Christopher Dorr and Theresa Zuhoski were not present at the executive session Wednesday. Ms. Henriquez and deputy superintendent Sam Schneider declined to give an immediate comment following the executive session, requesting any questions from the newspaper be sent in an email.

While a full abatement does not need to be completed based on state standards, Mr. Meyer said, the board will abate the Mercy building as a health precaution. Based on the year it was constructed, he said, builders suggested asbestos will be present.

Photo caption: A view high above Mercy in 2018. (Credit: Michael Versandi/file)

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