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Riverhead students to host July 25 rally urging community to approve school budget

Andrew MacGray was sitting around the breakfast table when the realization sunk in that if Riverhead’s school budget isn’t approved when it’s up for a revote later this month, school sports and other extracurricular activities could be canceled next school year.

A sophomore at Riverhead High School and a varsity wrestler, MacGray began talking to a few friends about what they can do to muster support within their community. On the social media app Snapchat, he urged his fellow classmates to join him for a rally.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. “This is just not how I want next year to go following coronavirus.”

So the group of students, and they hope many more will join them, plan to gather at the Route 58 traffic circle for a morning rally at 9 a.m. July 25. The goal: To convince school district voters to say yes when the revote is held a few days later on July 28.

“We need to rally. We need to make sure this [budget] passes,” he said Tuesday.

For MacGray, his biggest concern is what might happen to school sports, which are already under a microscope following the COVID-19 pandemic. This past school year, he was forced to miss out on planned workouts in the spring and an offseason wrestling program due to the coronavirus. Now he sees an even bigger threat in the looming possibility of a failed budget vote in a district that saw its first proposed spending plan rejected in June, months after a bond vote was also shut down by the public.

“And it’s not just sports it’s also clubs,” MacGray said. “Students go to clubs for after school to learn more, make friends and to have a good time.”

He also worries some elective classes could be dropped, noting that he worries about his mother’s future employment. Roberta MacGray is a home and careers teacher at the school.

On Tuesday, tonight, the Riverhead Board of Education is expected to schedule the July 28 vote. A new budget proposal has not yet been adopted.

At a prior meeting, the board adopted a contingency plan that included more than $2 million in cuts over the spending plan rejected last month.

Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider explained that contingency budgets have three key rules, including a moratorium on equipment purchases, no raises for individually contracted staff members and no increase to the prior year’s tax levy.

Mr. Schneider said $223,000 in equipment costs and $57,025 in pay increases were removed from the budget to reach contingency level. In addition, he said $2 million must be removed from the proposed budget to achieve a tax levy of zero.

“There are many ways to get there obviously,” he said as he unveiled a tentative budget reduction plan. The plan calls for $963,978 in cuts to athletic programs, $317,947 in clubs and music groups, $186,006 in after-school bussing, $100,000 in computer technology, $151,108 in high school elective courses, $135,122 from science programs, $148,459 from elementary literacy programs and $121,839 in auto and building maintenance costs.

“This was designed in a way to try and preserve the core academic programs for students as much as possible,” Mr. Schneider said. “It is by no means a perfect plan…by no means is this positive and by no means is this good news for everyone involved, but it’s the path of least pain.”

The original proposed budget failed by 361 votes in a year that saw record turnout due to mail-in ballots. The resolution to schedule the second budget vote, which is scheduled for approval tonight and is based on guidance from Governor Andrew Cuomo, calls for in-person voting.