Education

‘A huge step for equity’ as Riverhead schools to receive big boost in state funding

After years of fighting for its fair share of school aid, Riverhead schools are poised to receive a windfall of funding under the state budget deal reached between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers this week.

According to budget documents released Tuesday, Riverhead will receive $46.8 million in total aid — a 42% increase over last year that translates into $14 million more dollars for the district. An additional $673,254 is also included for funding universal pre-K programs.

Foundation aid, an issue that prompted hundreds of students, parents and teachers to hold a rally in January of 2020, will also rise by 72%.

“For too long, the state has shortchanged the students of Riverhead,” said Gregory Wallace, Riverhead Central Faculty Association president. “It doesn’t make us whole, but it’s a good start.”

Mr. Wallace said the increase in funding could help improve existing programs and offer new programs for students.

Last year, Riverhead joined a statewide push to call on the legislature to fully fund the foundation aid formula, which was created in 2007 on the heels of the landmark Campaign for Fiscal Equity Lawsuit, in which a judge ordered state officials to revamp and boost school funding to ensure students receive the education to which they’re entitled under state law.

It’s calculated by a complex formula that factors the cost to educate students, costs of living and other demographic data.

Riverhead has been described as one of the “Harmed Suburban Five” school districts that have received the lowest share of what they’re owed under the formula.

Pandemic-related federal funding will also provide a boost of $18.9 million — $12.8 million from the American Rescue Plan approved last month and $6 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

It’s a higher than-expected amount of stimulus funding than the $8.6 million initially projected by Sen. Charles Schumer’s office last week.

While details on the parameters of those funds, which would largely be allocated based on the number of students living below the poverty line, are still emerging, interim superintendent Christine Tona embraced the idea of additional funding.

The total aid projected is also far more than school officials had been anticipating when Mr. Cuomo first proposed his budget in January.

“We are incredibly grateful to Assemblyman [Fred] Thiele, Senator [Anthony] Palumbo, and Assemblywoman [Jodi] Giglio for their hard work and advocacy on behalf of the Riverhead Central School District,” Ms. Tona said Thursday. “For the first time in more than a decade, we have received state aid at a level commensurate with our need. This is a huge step toward equity for our district. We look forward to continued improvements in our academic and support programs for the benefit of the students of this district.”

In an interview Monday, Shoreham-Wading River Superintendent Gerard Poole said the rescue plan was great news. “We spent a lot of money to open schools this year and there’s going to be a continual expense in light of the pandemic above and beyond what districts usually spend and budget for,” Mr. Poole said.

Shoreham-Wading River would receive approximately $575,159 in American Rescue Act funding and $1.9 million in CARES Act funding, according to the school aid runs.

After reviewing the federal legislation, Mr. Poole noted that one requirement is that 20% of the funding is used to make up for learning loss as a result of the pandemic, which disrupted in-person learning in 2020, though more students have been returning to hybrid and fully in-person learning this year.

He said the funding could help address academics, social-emotional learning and promote keeping schools open in a healthy, safe manner. 

As districts await further state guidance on how the funding will be allocated, the administrators each said they feel hope as the end of the school year nears.

“It’s been a challenging, different year, but a great year,” Mr. Poole said. “Getting guidance from the state will be very helpful, but it’s great news. Schools need it.”