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Community members weigh in on Riverhead Charter School’s proposed expansion to grades 11-12

An expansion of Riverhead Charter School to include grades 11 and 12 drew a sharp response from community members, some of whom argued during a public hearing that the Riverhead Central School District cannot afford to fund the increased enrollment.

The hearing at last Tuesday’s Riverhead Board of Education meeting also drew community members who supported the expansion, saying the charter school does a better job at serving minority communities. 

The expansion would allow the charter school in Calverton to begin offering grade 11 in 2022-23 and grade 12 in 2023-24. The school began offering 10th grade this year and ninth grade for the first time last fall. Prior to that, the school only educated students through eighth grade.

Ten speakers spoke during the public hearing and half favored expansion while half were against. An overwhelming number of submissions received online were opposed to the expansion. Lisa Rheaume, the district clerk, said there were 51 submissions and all but one opposed expansion.

“Until New York State funds schools differently, I believe that we should put on hold any expansion to the charter school,” said Chris Butterfield, a social studies teacher at Riverhead Middle School.

The school district has no say on the pending application that is before the New York State Board of Regents for the charter school’s expansion. The BOE meeting was simply the forum where the public hearing took place. Comments from the hearing are recorded and transmitted to the Board of Regents as required by law.

“As many of you know this board does not rule on this application at all,” board President Laurie Downs said. “It’s a matter that is entirely within the hands of the state education department. They are, however, interested in hearing the thoughts of the district residents.”

Some residents argued against the expansion by saying that the public has no right to vote on how the school uses funds given to them by the public district. Charter schools are funded based on a per-pupil cost paid by each student’s home district. 

“There is no choice when our money is unilaterally transferred to a charter school where we don’t get to vote on how it is going to be expended,” said Steve Ligina of Aquebogue, a parent of two in Riverhead.

Chris Butterfield, a social studies teacher at Riverhead Middle School, speaks against the expansion. (Credit: Tara Smith)

The charter school currently has 756 students, 89% of whom are minorities and 68% identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to charter school Superintendent Raymond Ankrum. The enrollment could increase to 1,244 under the expansion.

There was no translator at the meeting, even though the majority of people who supported the expansion only spoke Spanish. A volunteer from the audience translated for one Spanish speaker.

Those who spoke in favor of expansion said that students and families should be able to choose where they want to finish their education.

“Americans have the choice and that’s what they’re asking for — a choice to make their children’s education the best they can,” said Kathy Berezny, a former board member. “If they feel that their child would be better off in a charter school, so be it.”

Riverhead Charter School was established over 20 years ago. The bulk of the school’s students come from the Riverhead, William Floyd and Longwood school districts.

The charter school is currently leasing and converting the former Northville Schoolhouse at 5117 Sound Ave. in Northville for eventual use as a school. Charter school officials attended a Riverhead Town work session last month as it seeks approvals since Riverhead Town allows schools in only nine of its 37 zoning categories. Aimee Lomonaco, president of the school’s board of trustees, said it’s a “perfect location” during the work session.

The charter school made an effort to expand into the former Bishop McGann-Mercy High School building, but that property was ultimately sold to the Peconic Bay Medical Center Foundation in 2020.