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Riverhead Central School District announces teacher layoffs as federal COVID aid dries up

Dozens of employees of the Riverhead Central School District were made aware of impending termination last week, with nearly 38 teaching positions included in the planned cuts, according to Gregory Wallace, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association.

Mr. Wallace told the Riverhead News-Review that 19 teachers were let go entirely and four were reduced to less than full-time. An additional 15 positions will be eliminated by attrition, he said.

The bulk of the layoffs are coming at the elementary level, with 11 employees facing termination.

“It’s heart wrenching, it’s hard to see these young teachers who are affected,” Mr. Wallace said. “These layoffs are not based on need … this is purely fiscal.”

Ron Edelson, spokesperson for the district, said interim superintendent Cheryl Pedisich will be giving a full presentation on the layoffs at the next school board meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, March 19.

“The public has a right to hear directly from [the school board],” Mr. Edelson said. “She’ll be putting everything into context, talking about the positions that are basically being excessed due to people retiring and not filling [those positions], and other positions that really have to do with people being hired due to COVID money.”

Marianne Cartisano, the district’s acting assistant superintendent for business, warned school board members at a Feb. 27 preliminary budget meeting that the roughly $19 million in state and federal funding the district received during the COVID-19 pandemic were about to run dry.

At the meeting, Ms. Cartisano said a “large chunk” of this money was spent on one-time, non-recurring expenses, however several full-time positions that were paid for as part of that grant funding would 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 new staff members, including administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides and district office workers. During 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.

Mr. Wallace could not speak to layoffs involving teachers’ aides, but said there would be additional layoffs in the Riverhead Teaching Assistants Association union.

The RCFA union president noted the roles funding for the Riverhead Charter School, IDA tax abatements and New York State school Foundation Aid play in the overall “fiscal state” of the district.

He said the charter school received $11.6 million in tuition this year and according to the district’s 2024-25 budget proposal, this number is projected to rise to $13.7 million.

“[The charter school’s] funding does not fluctuate with the economic cycle,” Mr. Wallace said. “When our budget fails, their funding remains whole.”

Between past underfunding of Foundation Aid — by as much as $188 million, according to Mr. Wallace — and loss of funding through various other programs, nearly $300 million has been diverted from the school district since 2011, according to statements in past reporting.

Adding in the nearly $15 million lost to IDA tax abatements, Mr. Wallace previously said it is fair to estimate Riverhead Central School District has lost nearly $400 million in total funding. 

“We do know that the COVID money is drying up,” Mr. Wallace said. “But if we had that [$15 million], we would not be eliminating positions, we would be adding them.”

Mr. Wallace said although the loss of COVID funds is impacting school districts across Long Island, he does not believe many other districts have dealt with the same financial impact the Riverhead School District has experienced due to the combination of charter school funding, IDA tax abatements and the losses from Foundation Aid underfunding.

This is a developing story and will be updated.