Riverhead school board warned of ‘fiscal cliff’ as funding dries up

Over the past few years, the Riverhead Central School District has received roughly $19 million in state and federal funding — but these funds are about to run dry, according to Marianne Cartisano, the district’s acting assistant superintendent for business. 

The funding has been used either to hire more staff to sustain the district through COVID-19 pandemic challenges or to pay for one-time, non-recurring expenses, Ms. Cartisano said. 

As the district readies for the 2024-25 budget vote in May, Ms. Cartisano alerted Board of Education members about the “fiscal cliff” in funding they are likely to face — a challenge many school districts across Long Island are bracing for. 

“Our fiscal cliff is $19.8 million of funding that we will not receive come July 1,” Ms. Cartisano told school board members at a Feb. 27 meeting. “What happens is when that money runs out, you fall off the cliff.” 

Ms. Cartisano started in her new role in late October, replacing Rodney Asse. Since then, she said she has been working to improve the district’s financial practices and feels “optimistic” about this year’s budget process. 

Ms. Cartisano broke down some preliminary data regarding tax cap projections, staffing analysis, grant funding and other proposals district residents will vote on in May. 

Since March 2020, New York State has received more than $14 million in federal COVID response funding earmarked for local education agencies. This was done through appropriations such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), the 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA), and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARP). 

In her presentation, Ms. Cartisano said the funding that could be lost includes $6.6 million from elementary and secondary school emergency relief grants and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. 

In previous years, the district has also received $13.2 million in state grants to support child nutrition programs, summer enrichment initiatives and after-school programs, address learning loss due to the pandemic; and aid students experiencing homelessness. 

“Now these grants are done,” Ms. Cartisano emphasized. 

Ms. Cartisano said a “large chunk” of this money was spent on one-time, non-recurring expenses, however positions that were part of that grant funding will have to be reduced. 

At the time, Ms. Cartisano said the school board did the “right thing” to address student needs during the pandemic. However, because of the lack of grants coming in for the 2024-25 year, Ms. Cartisano advised the school board to pump the brakes when it comes to hiring more employees. 

Since 2018, the district has hired 116 staff members, including administrators, teachers, teacher’s aides and district office workers. In the past five years, the number of faculty members in the district has increased from 403 to 535.

The district also has seen an increase in teachers’ aides — from 50 in 2018 to 73 this year. Overall, the Riverhead Central School District currently has 117 more employees than in previous years. 

“We have enough on staff, but there are positions that do have to be reduced that were part of that grant funding,” Ms. Cartisano said. “We will be looking to reduce the least senior positions district-wide.” 

Ms. Cartisano emphasized there will not be a reduction of 117 jobs, but rather an examination of which roles can be scaled back without being eliminated, with an eye toward balancing stability with sustainability. 

As for the school’s tax cap projection for 2024-25, Ms. Cartisano said the estimated number is 3% to 3.5%, although she believes it will be lower. 

“The board has been very clear with me that they have no intention or expectations to pierce the cap,” she said. “That means that we will stay within the guidelines that the cap will lay out for us.”Additionally, the district is projected to receive more than $80 million in New York state aid for the 2024-25 fiscal school year — a roughly 4.3% increase from last year, according to previous reporting. 

Budget presentations began Tuesday, March 5, and will continue into April. The next public budget meetings are scheduled for March 19, April 2 and April 16, all starting at 7 p.m. 

A public information meeting on the budget vote itself will be held Tuesday, May 14, at 7 p.m.

The annual Board of Education election and budget vote is set for Tuesday, May 21. There are two open seats on the school board this year. 

“This is going to be a new level of ‘March Madness’ that you probably have not experienced,” Ms. Cartisano cautioned the school board. “You have great kids who are achieving really awesome experiences, and we are going to look to protect as much of that as we can in the next couple of months.”