Following last year’s failures, Riverhead begins school budget process

As the school budget process gets underway for 2021-2022, Riverhead interim Superintendent Christine Tona warned that the road ahead will be challenging for the district as it navigates back from last year’s failed budget proposals.

“The impact of this year’s contingency budget is on my mind every day as we plan the next year’s budget,” Ms. Tona said during a Board of Education meeting Tuesday.

Voters rejected a $147.1 million proposal twice last year, forcing the board to make tough calls in order to shave $2.3 million from the plan.

Ms. Tona cited the loss of the year’s tax levy growth as the top challenge facing the district as they forge ahead with the planning process.

“We want to make sure that we can restore programs that were cut under contingency and move our district forward with programs we need for the 21-22 school year,” she said.

But even as the district tries to move forward, deputy superintendent Sam Schneider said the pain of the failed budget will likely be felt for the next several years.

During his presentation, Mr. Schneider noted that had the budget passed, the allowable levy for 2021-2022 would have been much higher and as the years go on, the difference grows.

He likened the situation to a road trip from New York to California, a trip that should take five days. “If on one of those days you do not move your car, you will always be behind in that schedule,” he said. “That’s essentially the position we find ourselves in being on contingency.”

According to Mr. Schneider, the tax levy for next year can be no greater than $106 million, which is a 1.47% increase over the current levy. 

The Board of Education voted Tuesday to accept the tax cap calculation, which allows the district to file necessary reports with the state Education Department and Comptroller’s office and indicates that they don’t intend to pierce the tax cap.

PILOT payments the district receives — payments in lieu of taxes — are also factored into the equation, Mr. Schneider said, and come from the Riverhead IDA, County IDA and several solar facilities in the area. Those payments are expected to increase from $1.67 million to $1.73 million next year.

Tuesday’s presentation focused on three categories that officials said are relatively predictable, including administrative and insurance costs, employee salaries and benefits and debt service.

Mr. Schneider recommended appropriating $4.1 million for general services, which covers central administration, audits and property insurance, a projected $886,000 for workers compensation costs, $15.9 million for health insurance costs and $8.2 million for debt service in order to repay funds borrowed for the 2011 bond, turf field, bus purchases and the district’s energy performance contract.

He said this upcoming year will be the last year of repayment for the turf field and aso noted the district has saved approximately $167,583 in interest payments by issuing two separate Tax Anticipation Notes throughout the year.

With much still to be determined when it comes to the overall budget, including how much state and federal aid the district will receive, Ms. Tona said a top goal is being aware of the current fiscal realities, not only for the district but taxpayers.

“Last June and July when the community went to the polls … they told us that they didn’t have confidence in our spending plan,” she said. “So it’s incredibly important for us this year to listen to their message from last year, learn from it and put forward a spending plan that’s in the best interest of our students and the community at the same time.”

Additional budget presentations will be held next month, with the budget scheduled to be adopted in April ahead of the currently scheduled May 18 budget vote. More information and Tuesday’s presentation can be found on the district website.