Editorial: Rising enrollment forces Riverhead to be proactive

The recent disclosure from Riverhead school officials that the district will pitch a bond proposal to purchase the former Bishop McGann-Mercy High School comes as no great surprise. When the reality set in last year that the longtime Catholic secondary school would close its doors, the two most likely scenarios for the property’s future involved its acquisition by either Peconic Bay Medical Center next door or the Riverhead Central School District.

Steadily increasing enrollment in Riverhead, driven largely by an influx of English language learners, has forced the district to be proactive in figuring out how to plan for the future. Changes can already been seen in the district. This fall, Riverhead’s varsity football team will bump up to Division I for the first time, competing with the largest schools in Suffolk County.

Rising enrollment will eventually be felt in ways far beyond the athletic fields, however, and administrators must now face the prospect of providing enough space to accommodate all the district’s programs. Acquiring a nearby property like McGann-Mercy would go a long way toward addressing some of those issues, which will only worsen over the next few years.

At an April school board presentation, Brian Sacks, director of athletics, health and physical education, predicted that in terms of sports-related programs, Riverhead could become the fifth largest school district in Suffolk County within three years.

School board president Greg Meyer said this week the district received results from an Eastern Suffolk BOCES study projecting enrollment would exceed the district’s maximum capacity by 2023. That’s right around the corner.

The proposal to purchase Mercy is still in its early stages, and district residents have yet to receive any substantive information other than what reporters have gathered. Officials are planning a presentation for the Aug. 27 board meeting, and residents should make note to attend. It will be vital for residents to weigh in, as this decision will carry a significant financial cost with a long-term impact on the future of the district.

Many questions will be asked about how that property can ultimately be used.

Pursuing the opportunity to purchase the property is a wise move for Riverhead schools. Now the district must give the public a chance to weigh in on how to proceed.