Editorial: Voters’ message to Riverhead School District — No way

Now what?

At elementary school polling stations Tuesday, Riverhead school district voters made it abundantly clear they had little to no appetite to dish out money to fund a substantial bond that would have addressed shrinking class space and spiraling enrollment.

The message from voters to the district was simple: Figure it out. But leave us out of it.

Nearly 70% of Tuesday’s voters rejected Proposition 1, which totaled $88.2 million and would have cost the average homeowner an additional $16.41 a month in taxes — about the monthly cost of a premium Netflix account. The second proposition, totaling $8.8 million to fund primarily athletic upgrades, required Proposition 1 to pass. It never stood a chance and was wishful thinking from the beginning.

A dejected group of district officials and administrators left Roanoke Avenue Elementary School that night talking about getting back to the drawing board. The challenge that lies ahead will be considerable. School board president Greg Meyer mentioned the February 2010 bond that initially failed before a scaled back version was approved in 2011. But even that $123 million plan got more support in 2010 than what we saw Tuesday.

The numbers inspire little confidence that any tweaked, trimmer version of a bond will stand a chance in the upcoming months. Efforts by district officials at community forums and school board meetings to persuade residents to support the bond made no dent.

Residents made their voices heard. But the problems remain.

Officials have said that enrollment at both the high school and Pulaski Street have already reached capacity. 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 at 1,525 students. In 2018, that number reached 1,922, which brings the high school close to its maximum capacity of 1,955.

The most recent data compiled by Western Suffolk BOCES predicts that 2,272 students will occupy the high school by October 2023 — 180 more than previous projections anticipated.

“There’s been a fierce debate as to what has caused that growth, as well as which arm of our government bureaucracies are supposed to stem the rising tide,” Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace said last month. “As the debate rages on, nothing will change the fact that our student population has outgrown our current facilities.”

Much of the conversation has focused on overcrowded housing, which became a key turning point in the 2019 supervisor election and Republican Yvette Aguiar’s victory. Whether the current administration will have any success at forcing people out of Riverhead by cracking down on overcrowded housing remains to be seen.

The school district cannot deny children who live in the district an education. Federal law dictates that discrimination in public education on the basis of immigration status is unconstitutional.

Some have argued that enrollment will eventually decline, and there’s no reason to spend all this money when it may not be needed down the road. Other portable building options could be less costly, critics have said.

Split sessions —where start times are staggered for different grade levels — could become reality sooner than later. Or, as some critics have claimed, that might just be a scare tactic. 

We’ll find out soon enough.