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Budget preview: Ten candidates vying for three spots on Riverhead’s BOE

In May, the Riverhead Board of Education adopted a $147 million spending plan, which represents a 1.87% increase over the current $145 million revised budget for this school year.

The tax levy is estimated at $106,852,122, which is below the allowable increase cap for residents in the district.

In anticipation of midyear cuts to state aid funding due to the COVID-19 crisis, district officials have proposed a number of reductions to save money, which will be reallocated into reserve funding. Staff reductions will be made through attrition and shared responsibilities in lieu of layoffs, district officials said.

Further savings will be achieved by eliminating the high school summer school program and associated overtime costs. In addition, approximately $7 million in unspent funds from this year will be appropriated into reserves to offset mid-year cuts to aid without disrupting academic offerings, according to Board of Education president Greg Meyer.

A second proposition will appear on this year’s ballot asking voters to authorize spending $469,470 from the district’s Cafeteria Capital Reserve Fund to replace serving lines at the high school, Middle School and Pulaski Street Elementary School cafeterias, as well as install a walk-in freezer and improve the serving area at Pulaski.

The Cafeteria Capital Reserve, established in 2015, is funded with surplus money generated through the cafeteria program and not taxpayer dollars, although voter approval is required to spend money from that reserve.

Voting in this year’s election will be done entirely through absentee ballots.

Mr. Meyer said during a virtual meeting May 26 that all ballots were sent out May 21 at a cost of $4,048, plus $58.80 for voters with international addresses. He said the cost of return postage has not been determined.

The list of registered voters was provided to the district by the Suffolk County Board of Elections, Mr. Meyer said, but the district did not receive a document containing voters’ signatures.

Responding to privacy concerns raised by the public, Mr. Meyer said that education law requires the district to print the name and address of the voter on the ballot envelope.

He also responded to community reports that voters who have moved out of state or even died had received ballots at their former addresses. Mr. Meyer noted that former residents are encouraged to update their status with the county Board of Elections.

The ballots are due at the district office — not merely postmarked by — 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9. 

“At 5:01 p.m. we will have five teams of four elections inspectors at the high school gymnasium each working on opening the affidavit envelopes,” Mr. Meyer explained. The entire process will be live-streamed online.

Ballots will be counted until 9 p.m. If the process isn’t completed by that time, the gym will be locked and counting will resume at 9 a.m. June 10, he said.

All ballots will be retained, as per NYS law, and members of the public wishing to review them can submit a FOIL request, Mr. Meyer said.

Residents who still have not received a ballot should contact district clerk Lisa Rheaume at 631-369-4724.

There are 10 candidates in the running for three open seats on Riverhead’s Board of Education , each carrying a three-year term.

Ann Cotten-DeGrasse

Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse, 76, is a retired teacher in the Riverhead school district teacher who was elected to the Board of Education in 2008 and resigned in 2017.

She founded the North Fork Breast Health Coalition with her late husband, Antonio, and lives in Jamesport.

Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse is hoping to work on space, financial and health issues. “I felt it was imperative that seasoned people be elected to the board,” she said, noting that she’s running with fellow former board member Amelia Lantz. “Between the two of us, we have 15 years of experience and can hit the ground running,” she said.

Her top priorities include working to improve the district’s status as a Focus District. “The curriculum needs to be aligned and data needs to be provided for staff to further evaluate the effectiveness of curriculum and programs used to utilize that curriculum,” she said. “Riverhead school district has a past history of piloting programs in individual schools, and when the results are not immediate, they change and start over.”

Angela DeVito

Ms. DeVito, 71, currently works part-time as an employment counselor with the Suffolk County Department of Labor. She resides in South Jamesport.

She previously served on the school board for five years and said her experience will help her to begin working immediately on top issues, including overcrowding, poverty and equity among the student population and fiscal management.

Ms. DeVito said she was “saddened” to see the issue of school overcrowding conflated with what she says were racist proposals.

“Under the guise of ‘protecting children’ and the ‘need to have safe environments,’ these community voices spoke out again and again about the need to identify all the Hispanic and Latino children in our schools and make sure each and every one of them belonged in our schools,” she said. “In this 21st century, making school-aged children the focus of hate and mean-spirited actions simply is intolerable.” 

With threats to state funding, she called for continual monitoring of school spending and regular monitoring to find unspent monies that could be applied elsewhere, before cuts are considered. She also said the board should consider a “lag payroll” for staff that could result in savings. 

Ms. DeVito said she has no special agendas, as she has no children or family members in the district. “I can look at the work of the BOE objectively and with a mindset to provide the very best for all,” she said.

Christopher Dorr

Mr. Dorr, 52, has served on the Riverhead Board of Education since 2013 and works as a program specialist for Nassau BOCES.

A Calverton resident, he is the parent of a 2013 Riverhead graduate and has twins in 11th grade.

If reelected, Mr. Dorr said he’d work to maintain programming, increase student achievement and ensure funding is in place for those programs while remaining fiscally responsible. “We are part of an amazing community and we have amazing programs for all students,” Mr. Dorr said. “I want to ensure these programs continue to provide the foundation that will ensure success and a strong foundation for their future.”

He said the school board must work with administrators to ensure that plans are in place for “various scenarios” in a continually changing education landscape caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition, he called for unity between the Board of Education and the community in the wake of last year’s failed capital improvement bond proposal. “We need to start addressing the concerns expressed by our community members,” Mr. Dorr said, calling for community involvement as the district moves forward. 

Gregory Fischer

Gregory Fischer, 63, is a business consultant who resides in Calverton and has two children in the district. He is also a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination to run in the 1st Congressional District.

Mr. Fischer said he’s running for school board to return the district to “normalcy” and let people know there is hope. He cited the district’s already stressed finances due to shortfalls in state aid, last year’s failed bond proposal and the disruption to this school year as challenges the board must address.

“We must restore programs to normalcy in a healthy way,” he said, noting that students are suffering from isolation and other stressors amid the pandemic. He said this could begin this summer with health and wellness programs to encourage interaction and emphasized that the district must plan ahead for the next flu season.

Mr. Fischer said his business background would help the district manage current fiscal challenges and called for creative ways to prevent deep cuts, including “resdesigning” jobs and programs and beginning with modest changes.

Ryan Gregor

Mr. Gregor did not respond to multiple requests to complete a candidate questionnaire but made a Facebook post public introducing himself to voters.

According to the post, he’s a Westhampton Beach native who studied business management and marketing at Bryant University. He currently works full time driving a semi truck on the East End and lives with his wife and two young children in Aquebogue.

Mr. Gregor said he’s frustrated with school taxes and recent scandals in the district and, if elected, is eager to work on those issues as well as new issues presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now more then ever, the school will be facing some of the most difficult decisions in its history,” he wrote.

He called for checking students’ temperatures before they arrive at school and working on creative ways to cut the budget to save money without firing teachers. “It’s time to tighten up the waste in our district,” he wrote.

Virginia Healy

Ms. Healy, 58, is a homemaker, financial planner and educational consultant who lives in Wading River and has eight children, three of whom are currently enrolled in Riverhead schools. She is the current treasurer and a past president of the Riverhead Special Education PTA.

As a board member, she said, her planning, research and management skills would help her address top issues including impending budget cuts, overcrowding and a return to school buildings.

Ms. Healy said officials must be mindful of students’ social-emotional needs and also be prepared to return to distance learning if the state requires it. 

She called for the board to consider consolidating administrative positions and rethink the need for department directors, citing “frequent turnover” in these positions. “It is wasteful, unproductive and disruptive to the classroom,” she said, adding that these options must all be weighed before cutting programs that directly impact students.

In addition, Ms. Healy called for creative ways to think about classroom space issues, including staggered start times for high school students, allowing students to earn credit online and finding creative uses for auditoriums, libraries, gyms and fields. She also said the district must improve outcomes for special needs and bilingual students.

Amelia Lantz

Ms. Lantz, 55, is a United States Air Force veteran who has two children, one currently in high school. She lives in Riverhead and previously served on the Board of Education from 2010 to 2017, resigning early from her last term. 

Citing her past board experience, Ms. Lantz said she would prioritize educational and community needs. 

“I believe the district should perform a forensic audit to completely comprehend where we stand. It is my opinion that the district over-budgets each year and it has a negative financial impact on us all,” she said when asked how the district should manage financial stress resulting from COVID-19.

She also said that the health crisis means the district must be prepared to implement distance learning at a moment’s notice. 

“I hope the district has heeded the warning in what preparations are needed in the event we are faced with a similar situation in the future,” she said.

Ms. Lantz also described last year’s failed bond proposal as “excessive” and said it wasn’t a true reflection of what the district needs. Rather than present another bond, she said, the district should consider alternatives such as overlapping sessions, portable buildings and contracting with neighboring districts to educate children.

Stephanie Ranghelli

Ms. Ranghelli, 47, works full time as a realtor and has three children who attend elementary school in the district.

Last fall, she helped start the Riverhead Town Association of Concerned Citizens civic group in response to mounting concerns about issues including overcrowding in schools.

Her top concerns include implementing educational programs that meet students’ needs at all levels and addressing their learning environment, which has become overcrowded.

“With overcrowding comes more opportunity for disruption and physical altercations among students,” she said, calling for a “true zero-tolerance disciplinary plan.”

Ms. Ranghelli said the district faces many challenges as a result of the coronavirus, including the need for additional social and emotional support as students emerge from quarantine.

Fiscally, Ms. Ranghelli said the board must work to be more mindful of spending. “Because of the support our students will need, looking to excess school employees who have direct contact with our students should be our last resort when considering excessing,” she said. “I feel we need to look from the top down.”

Yolanda Thompson

Ms. Thompson, 48, is a special education advocate who resides in Reeves Park and has two children.

After attending and participating in Board of Education meetings for nearly 10 years, Ms. Thompson said she is well-versed in education law and has a grasp on the issues: low test scores and graduation rates, overcrowding and funding challenges, among others.

Her top goal is to continue advocating for students needs in addition to improving community and parent involvement. “We need to have the trust and involvement of all segments of our community in order to ensure successful outcomes,” she said.

The COVID-19 crisis, she said, has brought several challenges to date, including providing an equitable education to all, regardless of learning abilities and socioeconomic status. “The board will need to be mindful of the social and emotional needs of our students and staff, not just the academic needs,” she said.

As the district grapples with uncertain fiscal realities, Ms. Thompson believes it should enact hiring freezes, cut unnecessary expenses and look into shared services.

On the issue of overcrowding, Ms. Thompson said taxpayers “made it clear that the district will have to explore other options,” which will be “especially challenging as our town’s economic recovery remains to be seen and the funding for state aid remains an uncertainty.”

Therese Zuhoski

Ms. Zuhoski, 52, is a licensed real estate agent and mother of four children, two of whom currently attend Riverhead schools. She is seeking reelection to a second term on the board.

As a current trustee, she said, she’s keenly aware of the district’s strengths and challenges and sensitive to the community’s needs

“As a current BOE trustee, I am committed to keeping Riverhead schools strong, creating a more cohesive board that values difference of opinions and resolves issues in the best interest of the students,” she said.

Ms. Zuhoski said the pandemic has impacted education in “unimaginable” ways and the district must remain solution-driven.

Education and classroom size remain a district priority, she said, despite the current challenges. “It is clear that overcrowding is an issue, and with COVID guidelines, this poses an even greater challenge,” she said, adding that the district must meet these challenges in “creative and innovative” ways.