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Riverhead Board of Education president Colin Palmer not running for reelection

As the May 21 budget vote approaches, Riverhead Central School District Board of Education president Colin Palmer announced late Monday that his name won’t be on the ballot.

After serving as a board member for three years and president for the 2023-24 school year, Mr. Palmer said he is not seeking reelection. In a statement on Facebook, he described his time on the board of as “one of the greatest honors” of his life.

With current vice president Brian Connelly running for reelection and longtime educator Kelly Freeborn eyeing the second open school board seat, Mr. Palmer said he felt it was important to give way to a new voice and move onto other avenues of public service.

“There have been a lot of challenges over the past three years and thankfully, this past year, even with the amount of challenges we’ve had, I’ve seen the board really grow,” Mr. Palmer said in a Tuesday interview with the Riverhead News-Review. “My hope is that they’re going to be continuing the trajectory that we’ve established this year and build on it.”

Mr. Palmer, who lives in Northville, works part-time as an artistic director for the Corchaug Repertory Theatre and serves as the cantor for Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Greenport. He was first elected to the Riverhead School board in July 2021 and gained attention as the first member of the Suffolk County chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America to win elected office in the county.

As an alumni of the school district and lifelong district resident, he said he felt his perspective was a crucial one to add to the school board.

“Just having one new voice is incredibly important — I was one new person with [six] other board members who served for at least one year beforehand,” Mr. Palmer said. “These past three years have kind of felt like six years, just the amount of work I’ve been involved with — it’s tiring for something that is completely volunteer.”

Mr. Palmer began his three-year term as a newcomer to school board participation and entered during a challenging time for the Riverhead school community. In 2020, the following year’s budget was rejected twice by voters, resulting in major slashes in sports, after-school clubs and music programs districtwide.

In the past year, the Riverhead district has gone through multiple administrative changes, specifically the resignation of one superintendent and introduction of two interims, confronted a series of racially charged incidents, endured critiques of instability within school leadership and more recently, announced significant districtwide layoffs due to COVID-era funds drying up.

When the previous superintendent search took place during his tenure on the school board, Mr. Palmer said there was a preconceived notion among some education professionals that Riverhead was a place “where you go for your career to die.” But he noted that educators have since realized that is not at all the case. As a newcomer to the school board, Mr. Palmer learned the importance of focusing on the positives.

“It’s that kind of mentality that damages a district,” Mr. Palmer said. “My stress level the past three years, especially the past year, has really grown — so I’m stepping back a little for personal well-being — but to be able to get through, focusing on those positives and knowing what you are doing is making a difference in your community and student lives — this isn’t a place to die, it’s a place to thrive.”

Mr. Palmer said he is proud of seeing the school board become more open and communicative since becoming president. For example, during pandemic troubles, the reopening plan the school board introduced was an incredibly divisive one, he said, but he took pride in the way members “prioritized students’ safety over fear.”

Reflecting further, he said when he first ran he knew he wanted to be involved in lobbying elected officials and initiating broader conversations about education funding with town and state government representatives.

“I think there is a big difference between politics with a capital P and politics with a lowercase ‘p,'” Mr. Palmer said. “I’m not interested in party politics, I’m not interest in people’s egos — things that are straight issues where you’re talking with people who are affected by those issues and collaborating together to get things changed, that’s what I’m most interested in getting involved in.”

One issue Mr. Palmer has remained passionate about is how industrial development agencies, or IDAs, divert tax revenue away from schools. In September 2023, he sent the Riverhead IDA a letter stating the Riverhead school district had been “robbed” of over $15 million in revenue over the past decade due to the tax breaks. In February, he traveled to Albany to speak with state representatives about this issue.

“I was actually talking to staffers of some New York City representatives and they even heard about the Riverhead IDA,” Mr. Palmer said. “Part of it was because of the work the Board of Education had been doing with other community groups, like the Greater Calverton Civic Association — this isn’t just a Riverhead issue and we’ve been on the forefront of bringing these issues up, and it’s not going to stop here.”

He added he plans on continuing this advocacy after he steps down as school board president and is hopeful major reform will come from the state assembly and Senate on these matters impacting school districts.

In regards to the upcoming budget vote, Ms. Freeborn of Baiting Hallow is running unopposed to serve on the seven-member board. This is her first time running for the board of education and she has over 25 years of experience in education. She currently works as the Assistant Principal and CSE/CPSE Chairperson for East Quogue Elementary School.

The Riverhead News-Review reached out to Ms. Freeborn for comment, but did not receive one by press time.

“She’s someone I know about and I know will be a great board member,” Mr. Palmer said. “I thought it was important to get another educator on the board and change things up.”