Editorial: Riverhead school officials missed opportunity to make small concessions

Disappointment was the word of the night Tuesday as Riverhead Central School District administrators, board members and faculty leaders tried to wrap their heads around another failed budget vote that now leads the district down a path of austerity. 

Disappointing, yes. Surprising? No.

After all, this was the third time this year residents have been asked to vote on either a proposed bond or the budget and the results have been the same each time.

No, no and no.

The district made a critical miscalculation in presenting a budget identical to the one that had already been rejected by nearly 53% of voters in June, when record turnout from mail-in voting in resulted in more than 6,000 votes. By going back to the traditional in-person voting system Tuesday, the district likely hoped that would be enough to swing the pendulum back in its favor. Previously, residents had approved every budget on the first try dating back to 2006.

But even on a sweltering summer day, residents turned out in greater numbers than in past years, with more than 4,000 votes cast, a sharp increase compared to last year.

If the district wanted to give residents a reason to believe it is listening, that it understands the frustration boiling over, it would have tweaked the proposed budget ever so slightly to find a way to reduce its total. Even just that small effort to make a concession could have gone a long way. The budget failed by 59 votes. Could 59 people have been swayed to a yes vote if the district had lowered its proposed total from $147.1 million rather than stubbornly putting it up again? Perhaps.

We can agree that the proposed budget was by no means outrageous. Neither the 1.87% increase in spending nor 2.21% tax levy increase jump off the page — and both figures are well on par with the rest of Long Island districts.

“The Board of Education believes that this is a responsible budget that maintains our district’s large variety of programs and offerings for students,” the district posted July 17 in a frequently asked questions document.

It may be responsible on paper, but the district needed to account for growing frustration about rising enrollment and controversies such as the superintendent’s abrupt resignation just as graduation ceremonies were being held. Uncertainty around the pandemic and what schools will even look like in the fall all combine to create a unique circumstance unlike anything the district has seen before.

The challenges ahead for the Board of Education can’t be underestimated: Navigating a hybrid learning model amid the COVID-19 outbreak, finding the right person to lead as a new superintendent and figuring out how to accommodate a growing student base without monetary support from the community for expansion.

The failed budget ultimately benefits no one. Savings for the taxpayers are minuscule. Students lose out on many opportunities that make their academic careers special. Uncertainty around the pandemic may lessen the blow to some degree. Fall sports are already delayed until late September and it’s unclear whether they will return at all.

The district had its chance to persuade residents to vote yes. Instead, it held firm, and now everyone pays the price.