Riverhead parents and students rally for a budget solution as reality sinks in

Following a school year cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, many parents were eagerly awaiting seeing their kids return to school and, concurrently, return to athletic fields and auditorium stages with their classmates.

But when Riverhead’s school budget failed for a second time last week, those programs — along with other extracurricular clubs and elective courses — were put on the chopping block under the district’s contingency budget.

“I was so disappointed that the community failed us,” said Andrew MacGray, a Riverhead student who organized a rally in support of the budget ahead of the July 28 revote. He thought the rally would be enough to sway voters, who initially rejected the $147.1 million spending plan in a 3,173 to 2,847 mail-in vote in June. A revote on the same spending plan failed by just 59 votes, sparking outrage among community members who fear the cuts will directly impact students.

At first, a wave of anger swept over the high school sophomore and varsity wrestler. “But then I thought, OK. What do I need to do next?” Andrew said.

He wasn’t alone.

Erika Redmond, a mother of three who lives in Aquebogue, was devastated to learn the budget failed. 

“I was not only heartbroken for my kids, but for all children. I just knew we had to do something,” she said.

Her Facebook feed quickly filled with posts from other families experiencing the same sadness, though the wallowing didn’t last long.

A Facebook group — Riverhead Strong – Saving Sports and Music — created by Ms. Redmond has swelled to over 600 members in just one week, serving as a springboard for fundraising ideas and other ways to appeal to the Board of Education in order to preserve extracurricular activities.

“It’s so much more than playing an instrument or a sport,” Ms. Redmond said, adding that these activities often come with lessons in teamwork and dedication. “For a lot of kids, this is all they have. I’m concerned that if we lose arts, sports and electives, what road some of these children could go down.”

Since the budget failed, the district must continue operating under a contingency plan adopted in June. The austerity budget plan slashes sports, clubs, music performances, after school buses and also makes cuts to high-school electives, science and literacy programs and maintenance, according to district officials.

‘For a lot of kids, this is all they have. I’m concerned that if we lose arts, sports and electives, what road some of these children could go down.’

Erika Redmond

Equipment purchases and salary increases for some contracted staff members are prohibited under austerity budgets, deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said.

Under the federal CARES Act stimulus plan, Riverhead schools are slated to receive $967,564.38, which prompted some parents to ask if those funds can offset some cuts to programming.

However, in an FAQ document on the district website, officials said the aid must be used for costs associated with the pandemic, including technology for remote learning and personal protective equipment.

Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said in an email Friday that fundraising efforts by community members would need to be accepted by the Board of Education as a donation. “Fundraising would have to be for an entire program such as all varsity sports or all JV sports or all middle school sports,” not just a select few, Ms. Tona said.

The start of the fall sports season is currently delayed to at least Sept. 21, according to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Normally, initial practices for fall sports would begin in mid-August.

A similar effort was underway last year in the Wyandanch school district when its budget was voted down. The district set a goal of $300,000 to fund all varsity and junior varsity sports. Suffolk County officials announced last August the district would be receiving a $150,000 grant to cover part of the costs.

Ms. Redmond said she is also communicating with district administrators to determine how parents could supplement programming.

Some ideas being considered are creating a more active booster club that’s registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and seeking grant funding through state and federal channels. “I know they’re out there,” Ms. Redmond said. “We just need to find them.” 

She hopes a more organized vision can be formed against more details of the contingency plan, which were expected to be discussed at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday. 

The virtual meeting was canceled due to concerns that Tropical Storm Isaias would impact internet access. It was rescheduled to Thursday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m. and will be live streamed on YouTube.

Meanwhile, Andrew is at work on a video presentation that will demonstrate why sports, music and clubs are necessary. He’s received over 100 emailed responses to his request and hundreds more posts in the Facebook forum. 

The posts touch on how hard it is to imagine a school year in Riverhead — one that will inherently look different due to COVID-19 — without traditions like ringing the victory bell after a football win.

Aware that many of these activities are in limbo because of the pandemic, Andrew said he’s already focused on future years. “I’ll be back after I graduate to make sure this never happens again,” he said.

Ms. Redmond hopes the visual presentation will leave an impact. “Sometimes we forget the faces,” she said. “We talk about [these programs] but seeing the students puts a passion into the project because that’s really who we’re working for.”

Posts in the group, with hashtags like #RiverheadRising and #SaveTheWaves, are also boosting morale for advocates of passing the budget and for Ms. Redmond, renewing her faith.

“We’ll get through it and do everything we can to turn anger into action,” she said.