Column: With failed budget, students do pay the price

I was going into my sixth-grade year the first time my school’s budget failed. It was rejected the following spring as well, meaning we ran on an austerity spending plan for each of my two years at Longwood Middle School.

If you think children don’t realize the impact budget cuts have on their education, consider that exactly 30 years have passed and I didn’t have to look that fact up.

I’m a 41-year-old man recalling exactly when it was that I missed out on the opportunities kids who attended that school just about every other year have had. The budget in Longwood, where I still live and my own children are now enrolled, has actually been approved every year since.

As an athlete of modest abilities and the son of a teacher, it affected me personally in two ways. My mother lost her job at the elementary school and the middle school sports programs I was looking forward to finally having the opportunity to play in, were eliminated. (Coincidentally, mom would go on to work for Riverhead schools.) In basketball, they took one seventh-grader on the freshman team; so for two days, 20 or so students in my grade competed for one spot. I had no illusions I could be the chosen one.

There were no extracurricular activities at all in the middle school during those years and, truth be told, other than one season standing on the sidelines for the freshman football team, I never did join any school clubs or teams after that. To this day, I’m convinced that wouldn’t have been the case if I hadn’t lost those two critical years of involvement in school activities. 

I bring this up now because lost years have been on my mind a lot lately, for a couple of reasons. The biggest factor is fear of  what COVID-19 will do to my own children’s educations.

As my son headed into kindergarten last year, my wife and I told his teacher our No. 1 priority was getting him reading. We were both already immersed in books at that stage of our lives and we worried he was falling behind. When he was still struggling a couple of months into the school year, we were reassured that the skills would start to click in during the final months of the school year. Except there were no final months. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. This coming year, he’ll need to play catch-up and he’ll only have in-person learning two days a week. We’re also less than a month away from the start of pre-K  for my daughter and we don’t yet have many details about that. 

Education in the time of the coronavirus. It’s a frustrating situation.

The other reason it’s on my mind lately, of course, is because of our coverage of Riverhead’s failed spending plan. Taking a photo for last week’s budget story, I came across a group of kids playing basketball at the middle school and thought back on my own experience. Will these kids miss out on the same opportunities?

We tend to dwell on sports in these predicaments, but the impacts extend far beyond the athletic fields. Surely the Blue Masques will be bluer than ever this year; a cello in the orchestra will sound sadder as its player practices alone. There will be missed scholarships and other opportunities. Of biggest concern, though, is how kids will fill their extra time. For some, trouble will naturally follow.

People who vote against a school budget — and there are hundreds of them even in an approval year — tend to justify their vote by saying cuts don’t have to affect kids. But they always do, and a lot of that is contractual.

When I look at what happened in Riverhead this year, I can understand voters’ frustrations.

The district has most certainly had its share of controversies of late and, as this newspaper pointed out in a recent editorial, it exhibited pure ignorance by submitting a second budget identical to the one that failed. 

When school board member Chris Dorr opened his mouth at last week’s meeting and blamed the budget failure on 59 residents who were too “lazy” to vote, he should instead have pointed a finger at a board and administration that was too arrogant to hear the 3,173 residents who voted no the first time around. Then again, a man who calls COVID-19 a “made up virus” might find self-reflection too arduous a process. Frankly, people calling for his resignation on social media this week have a point. Safety should be at the forefront of any school official’s responsibilities. Someone who makes light of a global pandemic isn’t fit for the job. Surely, a man named Dorr knows what they say to look out for on the way out.

The man is right about one thing though: It’s a shame students will suffer this year. The question now is when the powers that be in the Riverhead district will begin to do the hard work necessary to open up lines of communication with residents, clean up an administrative culture that’s been rotten for years and provide reassurance to residents that the best interest of students takes precedence over all other concerns. One would hope the time is now.

After all, some of Riverhead’s kids will miss and out and fall behind this year — and that should be an embarrassment for all involved.