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‘Taxpayers are tired.’ Breaking down Riverhead’s failed bond

A week after Riverhead voters soundly rejected a proposed $97 million bond, some community members are brainstorming how the district and town can move forward to address overcrowded schools and ensure that space is provided for the increasing number of students.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said the district has numerous options in moving forward, but it’s not appropriate for him to speculate on what district officials should do.

“I think they’re going to come up with ideas … but to speculate before those conversations have been had could interfere in the process of coming up with a solution that’s acceptable,” Mr. Wallace said. “As far as the teachers go, we have a large group of dedicated teachers who have been here for years. We will adapt and do what’s necessary to provide the children of Riverhead with the education that they deserve and the education they’re entitled to.” 

High school PTSO president Mary Maki said she believes uninformed voters and the sharing of inaccurate information online played a role in the bond failure.

“A lot of the voters looked to social media, and the bond presentations were not well attended,” she said. “That was another problem — parents just didn’t get out and hear the facts.”

Proposition 1, which totaled $88.2 million, would have funded repairs and renovations throughout the district.

Officials have said that enrollment at both the high school and Pulaski Street Elementary School have already reached capacity. According to district data, the K-12 student population has risen by more than 22% since the 2010-11 academic year. 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.

Stephanie Ranghelli, co-founder of the Riverhead Town Association of Concerned Citizens and a local realtor, said she’s spoken with RTACC members about the bond failure and one consistent reason she’s heard is that the community can’t afford it.

“I think taxpayers are tired. They are still paying for the other, existing bond,” Ms. Ranghelli said. “[They believe] this won’t actually fix the problem, since enrollment is growing rapidly.”

She added that many voters feel they don’t want the district to raise taxes when students are underperforming on state assessments and in the wake of several recent teacher reassignments. 

In November 2019, two Pulaski Street School educators were reassigned pending a “personnel investigation.” Former principal Dave Densieski was reassigned to the district offices and former orchestra teacher Christina Mercurio was been reassigned to the pupil personnel services office.

“The school is taking away the beliefs and the moral standards that parents are trying to instill in their families — and now they’re going to ask us for money? They don’t want to do it,” Ms. Ranghelli said.

 Prior to the bond failure, some residents expressed concern that the district is not effectively verifying student residency. Others have said the lack of housing code enforcement at the town level has led to overcrowded schools.

Ms. Ranghelli said there’s an influx of students who are not local residents entering districts throughout the state and the Riverhead district should consider what other districts are doing to verify students’ local residency by requesting certain lease agreements. She said they are not asking the district to turn away students.

Sal Mastropaolo of Calverton, in a recent letter to the editor, said now that the bond propositions have failed, one of many solutions the town and district should consider is to investigate placements of unaccompanied children.

At Tuesday’s regular Town Board meeting, Mr. Mastropaolo told town officials that he’s contacted the offices of Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and asked them to obtain the placement breakdowns by town to determine where unaccompanied children are living. He then advised town officials to contact those officials to obtain the local numbers.

“It’s to your benefit and to the school district’s benefit to understand the number of unaccompanied alien children being placed in [Riverhead] , because it’s adding to our illegal housing and our school district concerns,” Mr. Mastropaolo said.

In his letter, Mr. Mastropaolo also suggested the district begin legal proceedings against the State Education Department to recover $31 million dollars in state aid; assign grades 5-8 to both Pulaski and the middle school; implement split sessions at Riverhead High School as early as September 2020 and further investigate illegal housing. 

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said children who attend the Riverhead Central School District should be town residents. She said checking residency of students is an underlying issue that needs to be addressed before another bond goes before voters.

“We’re going to try to be professional, we’re not going to politicize this and we’re going to as many people who are willing to work with us,” she said. 

Ms. Maki said she believes the school district is being “unfairly blamed for the overcrowding issue” when zoning issues are related to the state.

“People are even blaming the Town of Riverhead, which they have done their part, I believe, in hiring more inspectors. But as far as zoning laws, that comes from New York State, so I think the school district was unfairly blamed for the overcrowding issue,” she said. 

Ms. Aguiar recently established a task force intended to open the lines of communication between the school board, town officials and town code enforcement. The new group will discuss issues related to the school district and town.

Later in the meeting, Yolanda Thompson of Baiting Hollow suggested that the task force ensure policies are being followed.

“We need to look at the areas where there might be loopholes in our policies and laws that are being exploited and abused and look for ways to close up those loopholes,” Ms. Thompson said. “We need to look at our policies and look at where we’re not following through.”