In split BOE vote, plan to revive Riverhead sports and clubs rejected

In a tied vote Tuesday night, the Riverhead Board of Education rejected a proposal that would have saved high school clubs, music and sports through tapping into reserve funds.

Board member Chris Dorr asked his colleagues to revisit the idea of saving the programs last week, following the announcement that most fall sports may resume play Sept. 21.

Tuesday’s vote came as the board faced a deadline set forth by Section XI. 

“If we don’t pass this tonight, Section XI is going to put out their schedules without Riverhead on them for the fall,” Mr. Dorr explained.

Under Mr. Dorr’s proposal, reserve funding would be used for fall athletics. Contractually, district officials said, clubs and music are budgeted for the full year. Mr. Dorr said they could ask the community to fundraise half of what it would cost to save the winter and spring sports seasons, with the district coming in for the second half.

Though Mr. Dorr and board members Therese Zuhoski and Virginia Healy supported tapping into reserves to fund the programs, board members Laurie Downs, Susan Koukounas and Matthew Wallace voted no. Board member Brian Connelly, who in the past has expressed support for using reserves for emergency situations, was not present at the virtual meeting.

Members opposed to the measure cited the looming 20% cut to state aid that could further strain the district, which must operate under a contingency plan this year after voters rejected the school budget twice. Pandemic-related costs and impacts to future years’ budgets were also discussed as reasons for voting no.

“These are the cards we were dealt,” Ms. Koukounas said, indicating that she would not support any proposal that included tapping into reserve funds.

Mr. Dorr said not running these programs, particularly at the high school level, puts students applying to colleges at a disadvantage.

“I am scared of what’s going to happen if they don’t have these options, that we’re going to see crime increase in town. We might see teen pregnancy increase,” Mr. Dorr said. “We’re going to have kids that have no outlet.”

But board president Laurie Downs said their primary responsibility is fiscal responsibility. “This is not our money, this is the taxpayer’s money and we have to do the best that we can with what we’ve got,” she said.

Earlier Tuesday, Mr. Dorr, Mr. Wallace, Ms. Zuhoski and Ms. Healy voted against spending $260 per board member to attend the 2020 New York State School Boards Association Annual Convention and Education, citing the need to preserve funds.

Mr. Dorr also cast the sole no vote against hiring four virtual teachers that district officials say are needed to assist with remote learning due to the pandemic.

According to interim superintendent Christine Tona, there are 929 students enrolled in the fully remote option districtwide. Across the district, Ms. Tona reported that there are 262 fewer students enrolled in Riverhead than at the end of the school year in June. The charter school’s enrollment is up by 62, while 130 Riverhead students have enrolled in private or parochial schools.

Explaining his vote, Mr. Dorr said he doesn’t believe the district should have offered a virtual-only option to begin with, or that it should have been capped. “We should have planned on how many virtual students we would have under the number of teachers that we have,” due to operating on contingency, he said.

“We’re there to educate the children whether they’re in the school building or they opted to stay home,” said Mr. Wallace.

According to deputy superintendent Sam Schneider, the approximately $370,000 needed to hire those virtual teaching positions will be “piecemealed” from other budget lines.

He again cautioned the board against relying too heavily on its unallocated reserves. “I am very concerned that we’re going to go bankrupt this year,” Mr. Schneider said, if the district opts to spend more money than is available. That, he said, could have “devastating” impacts for next year’s budget.