Proposed charter school expansion raises concerns for its effect on Riverhead Central School District

More than 25 community members spoke out about a potential Riverhead Charter School expansion during an emotional meeting of the Riverhead Board of Education Tuesday. 

The Calverton school, which draws most of its students from the Riverhead Central School District, is seeking to expand its enrollment from 787 to 1,037 students over the next two years. Several speakers expressed concern about how the proposed expansion would affect the Riverhead school district.

Riverhead school officials began the state-mandated hearing with a presentation on the programs offered to secondary students in the district. Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said an increasing number of students residing in the Riverhead district, currently 387, attend the charter school.

Charter school board president Aimee LoMonaco said it is the “public school of choice for parents,” and does not select the children enrolled, since it’s lottery-based. 

“They come to us, not because we are in competition with anyone but ourselves,” Ms. LoMonaco said, “but because they were seeking this choice.”

The charter school, which accepts K-8 students from all districts, is still searching for a permanent site for its anticipated high school.

Raymond Ankrum, charter school superintendent, said the school is not in competition with RCSD. However, he noted, it outperforms that district year after year. 

“My thoughts are that every kid should have access to a greater education, and our parents are selecting our school — we’re not selecting our parents,” Mr. Ankrum said.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace of Calverton asked that the state Board of Regents reject the charter school’s expansion request. He said a public school is an institution of learning which doors are open to everyone. By contrast, he said, the charter school is a “publicly-funded private entity” that can select its students.

Mr. Wallace added that charter schools place emphasis on New York State test scores, which are not an accurate measurement of student development. 

“Education and learning is not a linear process,” Mr. Wallace said. “Charters sustain emphasis on test scores, lead[ing] to a narrowing of curriculum and over-reliance on test preparation” which distracts from the arts and extracurricular activities. 

After listing an array of extracurricular activities she’s involved in at Riverhead High School, junior class president Madison Stromski said she doesn’t think it’s fair that the charter school is able to take money from the district and expand without a community vote. 

Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said that in 2011, RCSD paid the charter school approximately $1.9 million for tuition costs, which did not include special education and transportation expenses.

This year, Mr. Schneider said, the district will paying the charter school about $7 million in tuition, also excluding transportation and special education costs. Each RCSD student who attends the charter school costs taxpayers about $18,500. Mr. Schneider added later that it’s difficult to calculate the cost of educating each RCSD student.

Later in the meeting, however, charter school director of finance and operations Nichola Graham said the cost for each student is currently $17,000 and the state does not give the charter school that full amount. Also, funds are collected from surrounding districts, Ms. Graham said.

Rosita Bridgewater said she would not feel comfortable placing her son, who attends the charter school, in Riverhead schools. “I made a choice to send my son to the charter school,” she said. “I have a choice. You don’t have the right to take that choice away from me.”

Board member Susan Koukounas said she does not support the expansion. The charter school is a “heavy price tag” for taxpayers and lacks open enrollment, Ms. Koukounas said, adding that the charter school system does not have accountability and does not conduct a public vote for its annual budgets. 

Riverhead resident Luis Antonio Choy said in Spanish that he’s very thankful his daughter was chosen to attend the charter school, according to a translator. Though she has a learning disability, her needs have been met by faculty there. 

Omwatti Hernandes, another charter school parent, said her son is zoned to attend Phillips Avenue Elementary School but she would not want him to go there due to “the demographics” of the school. Her only options, she said, were to homeschool him or send him to a Catholic, private or charter school.

Phillips Avenue principal Debra Rodgers said Riverhead schools, including Phillips, continuously opens their doors to all children and families.

“It’s not a lottery. We take them all. We educate them all. We do all we can — for all,” she said. 

Mr. Ankrum said that if the charter school could take all students, it would. If they are able to expand, they will be able to take in more children.

In an email sent before the meeting, Mr. Ankrum said the decision to increase enrollment has little to do with what the Riverhead district is doing for its students. 

“We thank RCSD for all that they have done and continue to do for students and we will look for opportunities to partner with the district in any way they see fit,” Mr. Ankrum said.