Charter school critics derail comp plan hearing

A Riverhead Town Board meeting was packed to capacity Monday night for a public hearing meant to discuss several items in the pending Comprehensive Plan Update, but that agenda was effectively derailed by opponents of a single proposal: permitting private schools — including charter schools — in industrial zoned districts.

Dozens of community members gathered outside Town Hall in an organized effort to block the proposed change, with many holding signs asserting that “Industrial Zones Are Supposed To Raise Revenue Not Give It Away” and “Don’t Defund Our Public Schools.” A truck parked outside sported a billboard urging board members to “Say no to zoning changes permitting school construction in an industrial zone.”

The outrage stemmed from a proposal detailed on page 18 of the draft comprehensive plan intended to support the expansion of educational facilities townwide to accommodate growing demand. This includes working with the school districts to identify appropriate sites for constructing new schools and expanding existing ones, as well as allowing private schools as a permitted use in all industrial zones. With the significant spike in enrollment the Riverhead Central School District has experienced in the last several years, expansion and new development would allow the district to accommodate larger class sizes, and the town would assist in identifying “vacant, underutilized or publicly owned sites,” the draft plan states. 

New York State considers charter schools private for zoning purposes — even though they are publicly funded and formally defined as tuition-free “public schools of choice.” By law, charter schools are not allowed in any zone where public schools are located. By allowing private schools in industrial zones, opportunities for additional educational facilities in Riverhead would increase, according to the comprehensive plan draft. 

Several speakers on Monday asserted that if the Town Board adopted this change, any special permit granted to the Riverhead Charter School for construction on industrially zoned land would permanently remove that parcel from the tax rolls. Others expressed concern about how increased charter school enrollment would impact the Riverhead Central School District. 

“Removing land from the tax rolls and allowing a private school to be built there would result in a double whammy for taxpayers,” said Claudette Bianco of Baiting Hallow, who was the first to speak during the hearing’s the public comment period. . “While trying to help the charter school is commendable, it should not be done at the expense of the taxpayers or our students — the problem is theirs, and the parents’ who choose to send their children to it.” 

At a previous public hearing, Riverhead Charter School officials said they expect to increase enrollment next year. Back in March, the charter school dropped its plan to expand its high school on 12.3 acres on Sound Avenue and is now pivoting to installing portable classrooms to address the need for space.

The charter school is still seeking a new location for a high school building and has two potential, unspecified properties in mind, according to a previous News-Review report.

Several district educators spoke about the alleged negative impact the charter school has had on the public school district. Virginia Healy, a Riverhead Board of Education member and Wading River resident, described the charter school’s requests as “wants” rather than “needs,” because their expansion proposal includes adding sports and recreational facilities for students. When a school budget is voted down — as Riverhead experienced a few years ago — the first programs to be cut are typically sports and extracurricular activities because they are not “needs,” Ms. Healy said. 

The Riverhead Charter School is not required to put its annual budgets up for a public vote, which means it does not have to deal with those challenges, Ms. Healy said, adding that the school district pays tuition of up to $21,700 per charter school student. 

“We’re not responsible for changing zoning if town properties are not available for them and we’re not responsible for their decision to ask, and continue to ask, for expansions from the [Board of] Regents without property in hand,” Ms. Healy said. “They will not be the first nor the last charter that will have to go back to the Regents for a revision to reduce their enrollment.”

Georgette Keller of South Jamesport, a literacy specialist for Riverhead Central School District, asked board members if they had addressed other issues regarding taxes and school funding. 

“Why are you doing something for a few children versus the 5,500 that need help with the [payment in lieu of taxes], the IDA and everything that is owned to us from the state PILOT taxes for the state parks?” Ms. Keller asked Town Supervisor Tim Hubbard. “We need that help to educate the children — our property values are heavily rooted in the quality of our school district.”

Ms. Keller said she has experienced students coming to her needing help because the “charter school asked them not to come back.”

“We give them what they need,;they turn students away,” Ms. Keller said.

Not all of Monday’s speakers, however, were critical of the charter school. Mike Foley of Reeves Park found it “troublesome” that so many public school advocates are against funding the charter school, especially given some of the challenges the school district has been facing this year.

“We need seats in Riverhead, whether they are charter or public,” Mr. Foley said. “I think this argument is a little disingenuous.” 

Kimberly Wilder of Riverhead spoke about the pushback the Riverhead Charter School endured in March over its Sound Avenue expansion proposal and claimed the harsh comments from the plan’s opponents forced school officials to give up on purchasing the farmland — which was met with some boos from the crowd. 

“Is this all the same people that said the Riverhead Charter School can’t go to the farmland because it’s bad for the farmland? Now they want to go to the industrial land and now they can’t go to the industrial land?” Ms. Wilder said. “It sounds like there are more issues in the background that might want to be explored.” 

Kimberly Wilder of Riverhead

Although he was not present at the meeting, charter school Superintendent Raymond Ankrum, took to social media before the public hearing to call out the billboard and other anti-charter messaging, describing it as “a scare tactic.” 

“It was heartbreaking to know in the community that I’ve spent the last 12 years in doesn’t really want us here,” Mr. Ankrum said in an Instagram video. “Every time we make a move to try to expand and do more, it’s always met with resistance — at the end of the day, parents are going to decide where to send their kids to school and, as adults, we need to respect that.” 

In a phone interview after the meeting, Gregory Wallace, president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association said he and others who oppose the charter school are “exercising their First Amendment right to free speech” in order to educate others on how charter schools are funded, as well as why this is an important local and state issue.

Maureen McKay, who launched the media campaign “No Charter on the Sound,” said in a phone interview before hearing that “it was never about the kids” but more about preserving the rural character of the North Fork. 

Mr. Hubbard said that while he agrees state funding for the charter schools is “awful” and “unfair,” that is not the fault of Riverhead Town. He criticized representatives and educators of the school district for putting the blame on town officials — adding that their opposition has never been about the location, but about the existence of the charter school itself. 

“The money you wasted on [postcards], the money you wasted on the billboard truck, the money you wasted on your posters, should have been spent going to Albany and arguing with the state who controls the funding of the charter school, not us,” Mr. Hubbard said. “To come here and say we’re ‘defunding the school district’ — sorry not buying it.”

Due to the high volume of attendees Monday night, a planned second hearing on the environmental impacts of the Comprehensive Plan was pushed to Wednesday, May 29.