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State aid to increase across region; new legislation could help Riverhead

The Riverhead Central School District will receive an anticipated 6.7% more state aid this academic year than last — but that’s still not enough to handle rising student enrollment, Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget office last week released the proposed state-aid figures for New York State, which showed that all North Fork school districts can expect to receive increases over last year.

Although Riverhead will receive $31.9 million in state aid, Dr. Henriquez said it is not enough to address the spike in the student population, the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and the number of students with high needs.

“Many Long Island school districts are seen as wealthy, despite the changing demographics in Suffolk County,” Dr. Henriquez said Monday. “Riverhead is a district that continues to experience the increases mentioned above.”

Neighboring Shoreham-Wading River Central School District will receive $10.7 million in state aid, a 2.29% increase from last year. 

Superintendent Gerard Poole said Monday that this year’s increase in aid is due largely to a boost in expense-driven aid to the district. Expense-driven aid, he said, increases only when costs rise in specific categories, such as transportation. 

However, state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli announced this month that the cap for increases in property tax levies for school districts will be reduced to at 1.81% for the 2020-21 fiscal year — down slightly from the 2% cap in the last two years. 

As a result, school districts need to be “fiscally cautious” and “examine where they can limit spending to stay under the cap,” Mr. DiNapoli said in a Jan. 14 press release. “Local governments will have to examine their budgets more closely to control expenses.”

Riverhead continues to be financially cautious because they “do not have a choice,” Dr. Henriquez said. 

With regard to the lower tax cap, Mr. Poole said: “The district is always fiscally responsible and manages all revenue carefully. As we develop the 2020-21 budget through a careful analysis of programs and costs, the impact of the 1.81% tax cap on revenue will be reviewed as well.” 

State aid comprises about 16% percent of the district’s overall revenue each year, Mr. Poole said. 

“It’s important that school aid increases each year continue to reflect the rising costs in schools so as not to impact programs or shift costs,” he said.

FOUNDATION AID

While state aid to education has increased annually since the 2012-13 academic year and is currently at $28 billion statewide, a record level, Foundation Aid is still not fully funded. Currently, Foundation Aid for the average school statewide is at 80% full funding, according to a press release issued Monday by the office of Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor).

School districts in Riverhead, Glen Cove, Port Chester-Rye, Ossining and Westbury are part of a coalition called the “Harmed Suburban Five,” which have received the lowest percentage of state aid. 

The coalition of parents, teachers and administrators from those districts is fighting for additional funds due to financial difficulties as a result of rising student enrollment and poverty rates.

The average school district in the state receives approximately 80% of its allocated aid based on a formula. Riverhead, however, receives less than 50% of its allocation. 

Had Foundation Aid been fully funded, Dr. Henriquez said, Riverhead would be receiving about $48 million this year instead of about $17 million. 

“This reduction of $31 million in promised aid each year impacts our taxpayers and our students,” she said.

However, changes may be coming to the district. Mr. Thiele and state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have drafted legislation that would increase Foundation Aid funding to school districts based upon need and enrollment growth. 

The bill, if passed, would increase the allocation of Foundation Aid to school districts that receive less than 55% of full Foundation Aid funding.

The Riverhead district also meets all other criteria set out in the proposed legislation, including: increase in enrollment of at least 2% since 2008; at least 50% student eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch; at least 13% English language learners in the student population; and at least 8% special education students in the population. 

“The Foundation Aid formula must be adjusted to be fair for all school districts,” Mr. Thiele said in the press release. “It should accurately reflect factors such as need and growth.”

Though Riverhead received a 25.1% increase in Foundation Aid in the past five years, one of the highest in the 1st Assembly District, it remains below 50% for full implementation of Foundation Aid, Mr. Thiele said. 

“This legislation would ensure that need, growth and equity are recognized in apportioning school aid,” he said. 

Mr. LaValle said that throughout his career he has fought for balance between the needs of our schools and what residents can afford to pay. 

“This legislation would ensure that those districts that have additional stressors, such as higher growth in enrollment or special needs categories, receive fair reimbursement and the burden of additional support does not fall solely on local taxpayers,” he said. 

Earlier this month, the district hosted a rally at Riverhead Middle School to call attention to the lack of aid. 

“I do believe that our voices are being heard as a result of this work, but we must continue to be relentless advocates for our children,” Dr. Henriquez said. 

With increased aid, the district could add a “much-needed” nine-period day and an alternative school, she said. 

“We need more teachers, counselors and staff to address the needs of our students. Currently, we receive less than half of the aid that we are entitled to. That is just unacceptable,” the superintendent said.

Mr. Poole said that SWR will also be advocating for a “substantial increase” in Foundation Aid, which grew incrementally by just 0.25% this year.