Take two: Riverhead proposes identical $147 million budget for July 28 revote

The Riverhead Central School District is planning to go back to voters with a spending plan identical to the one rejected last month.

According to the resolution adopted Tuesday, the Board of Education wishes to present the same budget to the voters for reconsideration “because it feels that the budget represents the most advantageous and responsible spending plan for taxpayers and students while remaining within the property tax cap.”

The $147.1 million budget carries a 1.87% spending increase over last year’s $144 million budget. The property tax levy would be $106,852,122, which is below the tax cap limit for Riverhead, according to Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider.

The budget was rejected in a 3,173 to 2,847 vote last month. It was the only failed budget in Suffolk County and the first for Riverhead since 2006.

District officials are also bracing for cuts to state aid as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. To offset anticipated cuts, officials have proposed using unspent funds from the 2019-2020 school year, eliminating the school resource officer position and several teaching, administrative, clerical and maintenance positions by way of attrition rather than layoffs, according to a past presentation.

Last month’s vote, conducted entirely via absentee ballot due to coronavirus concerns, saw record turnout amongst voters.

A public hearing will be held on the proposed budget on July 21 at 7 p.m. either at the Riverhead High School auditorium or via teleconference, depending on guidance from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The re-vote is expected to be held in person on Tuesday, July 28 from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the usual polling places: Riley Avenue Elementary, Phillips Avenue Elementary, Roanoke Avenue Elementary and Aquebogue Elementary School. Voters must report to the elementary school that a K-4 student living in their home would attend under regular circumstances.  

Absentee ballots are still available for those that request them from the district clerk.

Interim superintendent Christine Tona said registered voters should be receiving an informational postcard with details about the vote in the next few days. Under a July 3 executive order by the governor, school districts holding budget re-votes had until Tuesday, July 7 to send updated information out to voters.

In other Board of Education business Tuesday, newly elected member Virginia Healy and incumbents Chris Dorr and Therese Zuhoski were each sworn in to their three-year terms.

The board selected Laurie Downs as president and Therese Zuhoski as vice president.

Ms. Tona, who was appointed as the interim superintendent during a special meeting June 29 following Aurelia Henriquez’s resignation, spoke publicly about the “challenging time” for the district during Tuesday’s virtual meeting.

Ms. Tona said committees comprised of staff and community members are meeting weekly to discuss possible reopening procedures.

“We are planning for three possible scenarios,” she said. “All students in person, all students learning remotely and a hybrid model.”

She said she understands community interest and frustration in specifics of those plans, but they are awaiting more guidance from the governor, state education department and state department of health before coming up with anything solid.

“Our highest priority is the health and safety of our students and our workforce,” Ms. Tona said.

Multiple community members submitted questions about a separation agreement between Ms. Henriquez and the school district.

Attorney Christopher Venator declined to provide specifics about the agreement, citing stipulations and the issue being a “confidential personnel matter.”

Ms. Downs noted that the district has not begun advertising the open superintendent role yet.

Ms. Tona also updated the community on the future of Riverhead’s Latin program, which officials had been considering phasing out next year.

She said the district intends to continue the program, but has faced challenges in enrollment and identifying a certified candidate to fill the role.

“We believe we have found a candidate,” she said, which would allow incoming seventh graders to enroll in the program after all.

She denied that the decision had to do with the budget, as seventh through 10th grade students are required to take a foreign language class.