Riverhead Town Board retracts plan to allow charter school build on industrial land

Just a week after dozens of community members and educators spoke out against a proposal in the pending Riverhead Town Comprehensive Plan Update to permit private schools — including charter schools — in industrial-zoned districts, the Riverhead Town Board announced its decision to nix the proposition entirely.

Supervisor Tim Hubbard previously criticized charter school opponents and educators from Riverhead Central School District at a May 20 public hearing for accusing town officials of “defunding” the school district. He said at that hearing that the group had “wasted” time and money campaigning against the charter school to local officials instead of taking up the issue with state representatives in Albany.

But the supervisor changed his tune at the start of the May 29 special meeting on potential environmental impacts of the comprehensive plan update, declaring that the Town Board was unanimously in favor of removing the language from the plan that would potentially allow Riverhead Charter School to build on industrial land.

This announcement was met with applause from individuals in the audience.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Tim Hubbard made the announcement before starting the DGEIS public hearing — which was applauded by charter school opposers in the audience. Tim Gannon photo

“We heard you loud and clear, we agree with a lot of the points, and there is land available in the town where, if the charter school should choose to build a school, it would be zoned appropriately for them,” Mr. Hubbard said. “We are not going to give away industrial land for use of a charter school — that has the support of the entire board.”

The outrage stemmed from an original proposal detailed in a draft of the comprehensive plan update seeking to support the expansion of townwide educational facilities to accommodate growing demand. The proposal included working with the school district 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.

Given the significant spike in enrollment Riverhead schools have experienced in the last several years, expansion and new development would allow the district to accommodate larger class sizes and the town pledged to assist in identifying “vacant, underutilized or publicly owned sites,” the draft plan stated. 

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 town law, charter schools are not allowed in any zone where public schools are located. By allowing private schools in industrial zones, according to the previous comprehensive plan draft, opportunities for additional educational facilities in Riverhead would increase. 

Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Raymond Ankrum expressed his disappointment over the board’s decision in an emailed statement to the News-Review. He said that although the charter school operates independently of the local school district, it is not supported by private funding sources, unlike private schools. 

“As a public charter school, we have been wrongly categorized by the local teachers union as a private institution,” Mr. Ankrum said. “This is a deliberate misrepresentation of our status and mission.”

The persistent feud between Riverhead Central School District and Riverhead Charter School has been ongoing since the charter school’s inception in 2001. The school district’s argument has remained the same: The charter school takes away money from RCSD on a cost-per-pupil basis.

Tensions were apparent from the first day of charter school operations in September 2001 when RCSD was required to provide busing for the charter school as there was no bus transportation available for most of its students, according to previous reporting in the News-Review.

At that time, around 40 charter school parents staged a sit-in at the office of then-RCSD superintendent George Duffy to demand the district provide busing. He agreed to authorize transportation for all charter school students living in the district.

The school district filed a lawsuit challenging the Board of Regents approval of the charter school, which was ultimately dismissed. While awaiting the court ruling, the RCSD refused to pay nearly $625,000 in tuition payments it owed the charter school, the News-Review reported at the time.

Fast-forward more than 20 years — during which there has been a significant uptick in applications and enrollment at the charter school — the charter school board approved a $4.5 million expenditure from its reserve fund last fall for the purchase of two Sound Avenue properties: a vacant 12.3-acre parcel that would be used for the construction of a new school building and outdoor athletic facilities and an adjacent 59.5-acre property on preserved farmland that could accommodate agricultural education programs. 

That bid was met with major backlash from Riverhead residents and school district educators, which eventually prompted the charter school board to withdraw its development application.

Mr. Ankrum noted in his email that the school’s charter “mandates” that it remain in Riverhead, limiting its ability to build new facilities beyond district borders.

But he added that the ongoing increase in demand clearly underscores “the district’s need for improved educational options. 

“The question isn’t why we don’t look outside Riverhead for space, but why so many Riverhead families are choosing our school — we remain committed to serving this community and providing a high-quality public education for all students.”