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District outlines concerns to town related to potential developments and influx of new students

How can Riverhead cope with overcrowded housing and, in turn, overcrowded schools?

Both issues attracted an onslaught of community criticism last year after voters soundly rejected two bond propositions totaling $97 million that would have addressed critical space needs in the district.

Some residents expressed concern that the district is not effectively verifying student residency. Others have said the lack of housing code enforcement at the town level has led to overcrowded schools.

Now, the Board of Education is hoping that a closer working relationship with town officials can start to address the topic of overcrowding.

At a Jan. 26 meeting, the Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution spelling out its concerns about potential development within the district’s boundaries that could result in an influx of students in the district.

“We believe that all students in this community have a right to a complete education in our schools,” board president Laurie Downs said after the meeting. “Nevertheless, we feel that we need help from the Town of Riverhead and developers to ensure that our schools are right-sized for the population.”

The resolution states that the board firmly believes in its mission to educate all students who reside within the district and takes note of increased demands for instructional space in each of the district’s seven buildings. It also acknowledges the “difficult financial situation” that would befall the district should it need to accommodate additional students.

The Board of Education contends that continued residential development, particularly in the downtown area, is “unsustainable,” and is calling for existing limits on such development to be strictly enforced. Future development, according to the resolution, should also not be permitted without “feasible solutions to solve the fiscal costs of expanding instructional space in the district.”

Last year’s bond vote featured two propositions. Proposition 1 totaled $88.2 million and would have funded repairs and renovations in the district. Proposition 2 totaled $8.8 million and would have funded several athletic upgrades, such as a new track and field and converting McKillop Field to turf. The second proposition was contingent on the first one passing.

School district officials have said that enrollment at both the high school and Pulaski Street Elementary School has already reached capacity. According to district data, the K-12 student population has risen by more than 22% since the 2010-11 academic year. Recent data compiled by Western Suffolk BOCES predicts that 2,272 students will occupy the high school by October 2023 — 180 more than previous projections anticipated. 

Since taking the helm as interim superintendent last summer, Christine Tona has been providing regular updates on enrollment and the residency verification process to the Board of Education at its monthly meetings. 

In December, Ms. Tona reported a total district enrollment of 5,405 students — 48 fewer than her last report in late October. She also noted a total of 469 students enrolled at the Riverhead Charter School, two additional home-schooled students and two additional private school students.

In her Jan. 26 report, Ms. Tona noted district enrollment increased by four students and private and parochial school enrollment increased by six students, while charter school enrollment decreased by three and home-schooled students decreased by one.

In addition to acknowledging the issues, the school board’s resolution authorizes district administrators to begin discussing goals and objectives with Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and other town officials.

“We look forward to a continued partnership with the Town of Riverhead on this vital issue,” Ms. Tona said in a statement.

In an interview Monday, Ms. Aguiar said she and Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who is the school district liaison to the Town Board, plan to reach out to Ms. Tona this week to begin discussions.

Ms. Aguiar said she’s supportive of the school board’s action and commended them for having the foresight to begin addressing development concerns, which she shares.

In August, the supervisor introduced the concept of using overlay zoning to create “micro apartments” in vacant retail stores along Route 58. Ms. Aguiar said the proposal would help reuse the abandoned buildings while also meeting housing needs for elderly and single-person households, thus not impacting the schools.

“Overcrowding related to our schools must be paramount regarding any and all future zoning matters,” Ms. Aguiar said, adding that it’s a “timely” issue as the town begins updating its master plan.

“The community has to now come together and ensure we can get the [school] budget passed,” she said.