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For second time, Riverhead voters reject $147.1 million spending plan

The Riverhead Central School District will be forced to operate under a contingency budget for the 2020-21 school year after voters narrowly rejected a $147.1 million spending plan for the second time.

A total of 59 votes was the difference in Tuesday’s vote, as 2,108 no votes were cast compared to 2,049 yes. The voter turnout, while short of the total in June’s original vote, far exceeded the average compared to recent years.

“Our community has made its collective voices heard,” interim superintendent Christine Tona said in a statement. “While we are disappointed in the failure of our budget, mostly for our students and staff, we will continue to explore ways in which we can continue offering our students opportunities to succeed in a safe and healthy school environment.”

In an interview, Ms. Tona added: “We’re currently on contingency so now the BOE will have to make decisions as to what the final budget will look like.”

The rejected budget carried a 1.87% spending increase over last year’s $144 million budget and represented an average increase of $110 for households.

The contingency budget likely means cuts to the entire athletics program all student clubs, musical performances, after school buses and reductions to other programs, according to the district.

“I’m very disappointed in the community,” board president Laurie Downs said. “The community has always come out in full force and supported our children and they’re not now and it’s sad for the kids. They’re the ones that get hurt in this.”

Officials adopted a contingency budget of $144.8 million that took effect July 1 so the district could continue operating ahead of the revote. That budget will now remain in effect. Districts can only put a budget up for vote twice.

The district had noted the identical budget was proposed because: “The Board of Education believes that this is a responsible budget that maintains our district’s large variety of programs and offerings for students,” and is within the tax cap with a levy increase of 2.21%.

Tuesday’s vote was done entirely in-person, whereas the June vote was done entirely by absentee ballots as directed by an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo due to the coronavirus pandemic. The mail-in voting led to a surge in ballots for June’s vote.

Just under 53% of the 6,020 voters in June rejected the budget.

District officials gathered inside Roanoke Avenue Elementary School Tuesday evening as the results — including 454 absentee ballots — were tallied. The results became official at about 10:10 p.m.

“We’re obviously disappointed the voters rejected the bond, so we’re going to be on austerity,” teachers union president Greg Wallace said. “As a parent in the district I’m very disappointed that my kids are going to get less than what most children are getting in other communities. I don’t know what the next step is for us to get the community to support the schools and children here but our children deserve better than this here tonight.”

Officials counting ballots shortly before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. (Credit: Tara Smith)

The failed budget comes during an unprecedented time in education as schools must navigate how to open in September under strict guidelines to account for social distancing and many other health and safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools must have plans submitted to the State Education Department by Friday. An announcement on whether schools can reopen in the fall is expected from Gov. Andrew Cuomo next week.

Riverhead officials had previously said they are considering a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning for reopening. Districts are directed to outline plans for in-person, remote learning and a hybrid model.

“Because of our strong enrollment numbers, we will not be able to have every child attend school every day,” Ms. Tona said last week.

Ms. Tona was appointed to the interim position after former superintendent Aurelia Henriquez resigned shortly after the failed budget vote last month. The Board of Education approved a separation agreement with Ms. Henriquez on June 29. 

Riverhead was the only Suffolk County district to have its budget voted down in June. Two Nassau County districts were in similar position after failed budgets. Uniondale also put the same budget up for vote again, according to Newsday. Valley Stream submitted a reduced budget.

On Saturday, Riverhead High School students held a rally at the Route 58 traffic circle, urging residents to vote yes on the budget.

In February, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, voters soundly rejected a proposed $97 million bond. More than 3,700 votes were cast in that vote.