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Riverhead BOE votes to cut all school sports, music programs following budget failure

As Riverhead school district officials prepare for an already uncertain year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and looming cuts to state aid, the Board of Education finalized a series of budget cuts during a meeting Tuesday that will eliminate sports, clubs and music programs districtwide.

“We’re hit with two different things now,” said board president Laurie Downs, alluding to the ongoing health crisis and budget proposal rejected twice by voters this summer. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. It’s unfortunate.”

In addition to equipment purchases and raises for individually contracted staff members already prohibited under austerity budgets, the cuts will remove all after-school busing, sports, clubs, musical performances and field trips.

“I’m not an ‘I-told-you-so’ kind of person, but we are in this predicament because you chose not to make a single cut.”

Allyson Matwey

The plan, adopted in a 4-3 vote, will also eliminate $250,000 in funding for Riverhead Charter School, save $5,835 by not printing a school calendar, eliminate $100,000 in funding for computer technology support and leave two clerical positions, an auto mechanic and custodial position vacant in the coming school year.

Board members Laurie Downs, Matthew Wallace, Susan Koukounas and Virginia Healy voted in support of the budget option, while Therese Zuhoski, Brian Connelly and Chris Dorr voted no.

The board was tasked with trimming $2.3 million from the originally proposed $147.1 million spending plan after the budget failed for a second time by just 59 votes last month.

Tuesday’s vote was preceded by a passionate discussion over where those cuts should be made.

After a list of alternate proposals was released during an Aug. 6 Board of Education meeting that threatened cuts to upper level foreign language programs, school security guards, kindergarten TAs and AIS programs for elementary students, Ms. Downs said the board was inundated with messages in support of preserving academic programs.

“I personally believe that the message got through to the school board,” Ms. Downs said.

Mr. Connelly urged the board to consider tapping into its Unappropriated Fund Balance to help offset cuts to both academic and extracurricular programs without putting the district’s finances in a precarious situation down the road. 

“It’s used for emergencies,” he said of the reserves. “I consider this to be an emergency.”

The idea was unpopular among the rest of the board, who feel rainy day funding will be better spent to offset cuts to state aid that could exceed 20%. “If we start dipping into our reserves now, we’re going to have more difficult decisions to make next year,” Ms. Koukounas said. “I don’t want to be there.” 

When asked if there was any other “buffer” to help offset cuts, deputy superintendent Sam Schneider remarked that he doesn’t have a panacea.

“I don’t have any magical answer for you,” he said. “These choices have kept me up at night because we are negatively impacting lives. To the people we are going to be put out of work to the students to whom we have to say ‘no.’”

Board member Chris Dorr was hoping the board would consider other concessions in order to save sports and music, particularly at the varsity and high school level.

But board members noted that even parents who fiercely advocated for saving sports and music did not want to sacrifice academic programs.

“I’m just angry at this whole situation,” Mr. Dorr said. “And angry that these kids are going to lose out on their senior year because of this stupid, made-up virus and also because of the ignorance in this town … by 59 people who couldn’t get off their butts and go out and vote.”

Mr. Dorr’s COVID-19 comment was immediately denounced by school officials, parents and community members. 

“We have some faculty members who are infected who were  very sick and some of our students’ family members actually died,” said Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace. “I found that comment to be incredibly offensive.”

Speaking about the budget cuts in an interview after the meeting, Mr. Wallace said the board had a difficult choice to make. 

“The board chose the best worst option. We don’t want to take sports and music programs — they’re vital,” he said. “But we’re an institution of education. That’s our primary function.”

Mr. Dorr apologized for letting his anger get the best of him. 

“Our lives have been completely turned upside down,” he said. “We’ve had other viruses that have been much more detrimental.”

Allyson Matwey of Wading River said that comment was equally offensive. 

“There are not other viruses that have killed 160,000 people,” she said.

Ms. Matwey said she believes the board erred when putting the same exact budget up for a revote after it first failed in June. 

“I’m not an ‘I-told-you-so’ kind of person, but we are in this predicament because you chose not to make a single cut,” she said. “Now the kids are suffering.”