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Public questions $100M bond project at first information session

09/24/2019 6:00 AM |

Riverhead school district officials hosted the first information session last Thursday about the proposed $100 million bond officials say will address growing enrollment.

The district pitched the bond at the Sept. 10 school board meeting. It includes capital projects in each building, districtwide security upgrades, building modifications and construction of a new field house, district office and Pupil Personnel Services office at the Pulaski fairgrounds. The bond is expected to go before voters in January 2020.

The option to acquire and use the former Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School property was removed from the plan after officials determined that doing so would cost the district an additional $25 million.

Last week’s revised presentation, led by Kevin Walsh of BBS Architects, was dominated by community members who brought concerns about enrollment and housing to the forefront of the discussion.

Here are some of the areas covered during the discussion:

PRE-KINDERGARTEN

The $100 million bond would not include funding for a new pre-kindergarten wing at Phillips Avenue at a cost of $8.9 million. In a previous interview, school board president Greg Meyer said the pre-K option might appear as a separate ballot proposition for voters in January.

Calverton resident Sal Mastropaolo said the district is giving up valuable teaching space in the pre-K classrooms. He suggested the district apply for a grant to fund a portion of the new units.

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said universal pre-K is planned and funded in the district. District officials have discussed possibly “putting all [five] pre-K community-based organizations in one location,” but a decision has not been finalized.

ENROLLMENT AND POPULATION GROWTH

Some residents expressed concern about population growth in Riverhead Town and enrollment in the district.

To date, according to district data, the K-12 student population has increased by more than 22% since the 2010-11 academic year.

Data from Western Suffolk BOCES showed that in 2011, high school enrollment was 1,525 students. In 2018, high school enrollment reached 1,922, which brings the building close to reaching its maximum capacity of 1,955 students.

This issue is part of what prompted district officials to brainstorm solutions to address increasing enrollment over the past few months, Mr. Walsh said. Dr.. Henriquez said population growth is not a new concern for the district. She wants to keep the dialogue open on the topic.

“This has been happening for a very long time in Riverhead,” she said.

The district has seen growth in the Latino and ESL population in the past decade. According to the State Education Department’s data website, 903 Latino students were enrolled in Riverhead schools in the 2008-09 academic year, which accounting for 19% of total enrolled 4,712 students. As of June 2017, there were 2,611 Latino students in the district, or 48% of total enrollment of 5,488 students.

State data shows the numbers of white and black students in the district declining over the same period. In 2008-09, white students comprised 58% of the student population and black students made up 21%. By 2017, the percentage of white students had dropped to 38% and the number of black students had fallen to 11.3%.

OVERCROWDING HOUSING AND REGISTRATION

Some attendees said the district’s spike in enrollment could be a result of overcrowding housing, when multiple people live in one residence and disobey housing law.

Baiting Hollow resident Ronnie Brooks, who has three children in the district, said there’s an issue of overcrowding in the school because some residents are renting out rooms in their homes.

“You have an unfair tax revenue because you can have one family paying for their children to go to school, and you can have five families living in one house. How is that equal for the taxpayer?” Mr. Brooks asked.

He added that students who need more help in the classroom could be placed with non-English speakers, which he argued could lead to a drop in test scores throughout the district.

Board member Laurie Downs said it is not the board’s responsibility to enter houses and remove individuals who are not district residents. North Fork real estate agent Stephanie Ranghelli, who has three children in the district, said the district needs to do its “due diligence” to ensure its students are living within district boundaries.

Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said students must provide proof of residency through housing and utility bills and other documents prior to registration. He said a full list of documents entering students must present is available on the RCSD Department of Pupil Personnel Services & Special Education website.

“The district’s role and the district’s power to investigate is limited, though, to whether or not the child is a resident of the district, whether or not the federal government recognizes the legality of their residence or not,” Mr. Schneider said. “We can’t turn away somebody just because their family is not here legally. We are required to educate students.”

Patrick Murgolo, of Riverhead, who has two children in the district, said the overcrowding issue needs to be prioritized before taxpayers face yet another bond to address increased enrollment.

After the meeting, Yvette Aguiar, Republican candidate for town supervisor, said the issue of overcrowding can be resolved through code enforcement.

“This is systematic, this is a crisis,” Ms. Aguiar said.

TAX IMPACT

Mr. Meyer said the board plans to stay under the 2% tax cap at the May budget vote if the bond is approved in January. Before the bond presentation, Mr. Schneider outlined the estimated increase homeowners would pay per $1,000 of assessed home value. In the first year, residents would pay about $1.96 more per $1,000 of assessed valuation. By about 2024 or 2025, he said, additional taxes would rise by roughly $7 per $1,000 of assessed valuation. Those estimates are subject to change, he said.

Riverhead Town Assessor Laverne Tennenberg said the average home in the school district has an assessed value of $43,500. She later encouraged community members to bring their concerns to the town.

UPCOMING INFORMATION MEETINGS

Due to community input at the meeting, district officials have changed the dates and start times for future Capital Projects discussions. The meeting dates are also listed on the district website.

Upcoming meetings will take place at Riverhead High School in large group instructional room No. 133. They are as follows:

• Wednesday, Oct. 16 – 7 p.m.

• Wednesday, Oct. 30 – 7 p.m.

• Tuesday, Nov. 5 – 7 p.m.

Caption: Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider at last week’s meeting. (Credit: Kate Nalepinski)

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