Following tweaks to dual language program, Riverhead School Board adopts 2024-25 budget

The Riverhead Central School District 2024-25 proposed $201.5 million budget was unanimously adopted last Tuesday following an outpour of community frustration with significant proposed staff cuts — specifically within the district’s Dual Language Program.

Following news of the staffing cuts, a “large contingency” of parents asked district officials to give their children the opportunity to continue in the dual language program for at least one more year, said Marianne Cartisano, the district’s acting assistant superintendent for business.

After moving some expenses from the 2024-25 budget’s general fund over to the Title grants, which the district receives annually from the federal government, the Dual Language Program will again be offered to the current cohort of kindergarteners moving up to first grade next year.

“It was never the district’s intent to negatively impact the Dual Language Program,” Ms. Cartisano said. “This is a short term solution for a parent to make the decision if they want their child to continue for one year — this is not a promise beyond first grade.”

Marianne Cartisano said she believes she has provided the Riverhead Central School District board of education with the “best financial plan” for the 2024-25 school year. (Ana Borruto photo.)

Ms. Cartisano announced on March 19 that nearly 57 classroom staff positions districtwide will be eliminated next academic year. This number represents a combination of 35 current employees and 22 vacant positions that the district will not look to refill.

The bulk of the layoffs involve elementary-level positions, including teachers’ assistants and employees working in the Dual Language Program. Without the proper staffing, school officials had initially proposed the program be completely restructured and consolidated at Phillips Avenue Elementary rather than run at all four district elementary schools.

Interested students would have to apply for the program and be chosen through a lottery system — even after some parents had stated in prior board meetings they had previously been required to comitt their child to multiple years of dual language education.

Adjustments to staffing reductions

Before the budget was adopted, Ms. Cartisano explained during a presentation that adjustments may be made to the staffing plan, which she described as a “fluid process.” As the school board reevaluates staffing throughout the summer, they will examine where adjustments can possibly be made, she said.

This includes looking at completed annual reviews for special education students and adjusting secondary schools staffing based on student course selections and class size.

Staffing has already been adjusted for elementary schools based on grant funding for 2024-25, specifically for one special education, one reading and three pre-k teachers, Ms. Cartisano said.

These adjustments allowed for the Dual Language Program to be offered at Aquebogue Elementary, Riley Avenue and Roanoke Avenue elementary schools to 2024-25 first graders, but there is no guarantee the program will be available in subsequent school years.

“We can now hire back or not excess five elementary teachers, which is what our goal was,” said Ms. Cartisano.

Kiara Chabla Sarmiento, one of the top 20 seniors in the Riverhead High School Class of 2024, credited the array of educational programs — including dual language — for her success and urged the school board to preserve them. (Ana Borruto photo.)

A few parents of children enrolled in the dual language program thanked Ms. Cartisano and the school board for listening to their concerns. Others questioned how dual language was able to be saved while other employees still face impending layoffs.

“How did we get around the seniority issue? After all the pressure and antics from the dual language parents, it seems you gave them what they wanted, and they got to keep it,” said Amanda Golz, an Aquebogue resident. “What about our [teachers’] assistants? They’re still getting cut — where’s the money to move around for them? I think they’re a little more important than having to find the money for the dual language program.”

Contingency plans

During her presentation, Ms. Cartisano discussed three options the school board is considering if the 2024-25 budget fails to be approved by district voters: adopt a contingency budget, which would require making significant spending cuts, revise the failed budget or simply re-propose the same budget — which she recommended as the best course of action if an impasse were to arise.

“I have given the best financial plan you can have for this budget to the school board,” Ms. Cartisano said. “I don’t see any reason to adjust it and I don’t see any reason to change your instructional plan — we have done the best we can with very, very difficult circumstances from your financial perspective.”

If the school board went with a contingency budget, it could lead to additional spending reductions of up to $3.5 million, Ms. Cartisano said. She further emphasized the “devastation” this would have on the community and student programming that could “take years to recover from.”

Concerns about a possible budget failure are not entirely remote as the school district has experienced this before. In 2020, the budget was rejected twice by voters, resulting in major slashes in sports, after school clubs and music programs districtwide.

Ms. Cartisano said based on an analysis of recent votes, she believes the 2024-25 budget will pass.

Kiara Chabla Sarmiento, a Riverhead High School senior who earned a full scholarship to study biomedical engineering at Boston University, recalled coming in as a freshman during the 2020-21 school year and experiencing first hand the significant loss in programs — which she said impacted the entire study body.

She advocated for district voters to pass the 2024-25 budget and urged the school board to preserve all its various offerings, including dual language.

“The programs that I have received throughout my years in this school, including the Dual Language Program I had throughout Phillips Avenue, is so important,” Kiara said. “That’s how I learned English and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.”

The budget vote will be held on Tuesday, May 21. A public hearing on the adopted budget is scheduled at Riverhead High School on Tuesday, May 14 at 7 p.m.