Education

Latest Riverhead school budget proposal has no tax increase

Taxpayers in the Riverhead Central School District can expect to see their tax bills remain flat next year, thanks to a recent boost in state and federal funding.

“For the first time in recent memory, we actually have the financial resources to fund programs that our students deserve,” interim superintendent Christine Tona said during a Board of Education meeting Tuesday.

Prior to receiving word that the district would see a 42% increase in state aid funding and nearly $19 million in federal stimulus funds, the board of education had been contending with a nearly $5 million shortfall and considering the maximum 1.47% tax levy hike.

Deputy superintendent Sam Schneider described the funding increase as “monumental” and noted that most districts were slated for single-digit percentage increases under the state budget runs.

The timing couldn’t be better as the district begins to emerge from the pandemic and a year on a contingent budget.

“There are no words sufficient enough to articulate what these state aid dollars will mean for our school, our community, and our students,” Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said Tuesday. “The increase in foundation aid will certainly begin to fill the void created by the years of inadequate state funding.”

As a result of the funding windfall, the district is now considering several new budget additions that Ms. Tona said would help provide social-emotional support and academic programming for students.

The $159.4 million budget would also restore all sports, music and club programs cut under the contingency budget and restore positions that were not funded, including a high school assistant principal and assistant director of pupil personnel services.

A list of additions proposed by Ms. Tona Tuesday includes an additional world language program beyond French and Spanish, additional art and business teachers, elementary health programs, English as a new language positions as well as guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers that officials say will be needed in light of the pandemic.

It also includes replacement of aging classroom furniture, custodial equipment, school-owned musical instruments, additional security cameras and a renovation of the main office at Pulaski Street Elementary.

Ms. Tona proposed a total of three new administrative positions in the budget: a district director of instructional technology and a dean of students at both the middle and high schools that would address social and disciplinary needs for students.

Those new positions drew the most pushback from board members, who agreed they’d rather see the money flow directly to student programming.

Board member Chris Dorr said he’d like to see no new administrative positions beyond the two being restored from the contingent budget.

“I believe our residents have said we have enough administrators and they will not want to see any new positions added,” Mr. Dorr said.

Board member Brian Connelly, who noted that he wasn’t in favor of restoring the assistant principal or PPS position either, said he’d rather see the money allocated to social-emotional initiatives.

“I’d rather see that money spent on our guidance, our school psychologists and our social workers especially coming out of this pandemic,” he said, adding that there’s one school psychologist for every 856 students. “I think that’s probably one of the highest on [Long Island.]”

While parameters are still being set for $18.9 in federal stimulus money Riverhead is slated to receive, Ms. Tona said its main purpose will be to close learning gaps.

“We know that our students lost so much in the past year,” she said. “We want to bring them up to speed and beyond.”

The funds are expected to be spread out over three years and could be used to provide additional literary and math support for the district’s youngest students, summer and after school enrichment programs, additional tech support as well as an alternative high school program and nine-period day at the middle and high schools, among other initiatives.

A proposal to spend $16,000 to purchase new kitchen equipment at Phillips Avenue Elementary may also move forward as an equipment purchase rather than appear as a second proposition during next month’s budget vote.

The Board of Education is expected to meet again April 20 to formally adopt the budget, which would carry a 0% tax increase.

A public hearing on the proposal would then be held on May 11, ahead of the budget vote on May 18.