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09/19/13 2:44pm
09/19/2013 2:44 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | The Riverhead High School library has been gutted and is currently under construction. Those renovations are expected to be completed by the end of December.

Riverhead School District officials say they have plans in place — or are hammering them out — to help ease transitional periods during construction this school year.

At the high school, three rooms are currently under construction: the auditorium, the library and the large group instruction room, known as the LGI room.

Superintendent Nancy Carney said the auditorium and LGI room are expected to be completed this fall.

The library should be finished by the end of December, she said.

“The whole space is going to be renovated and turned into a state-of-the-art media center,” Ms. Carney said. “There will be computer spaces and study nooks for kids.”

Ms. Carney said the district is meeting with Riverhead Free Library officials to collaborate student services during the library’s construction. Teachers are also gathering library materials and carting them into their classrooms, and students are using computer labs for research services, she said.

Roger Smith of BBS Architects in Patchogue, the company that designed the district-wide, $78.3 million construction bond project, said during a Sept. 10 school board meeting that construction at the Aquebogue, Riley Avenue and Phillips Avenue elementary schools is “substantially completed” and punch lists are expected to close out within the new few months. BBS is also working on a capital improvement proposal for the Shoreham-Wading River School District.

Riverhead Middle School construction plans have been submitted to the state education department, Mr. Smith said, adding that plans for Pulaski Street and Roanoke Avenue elementary schools will be sent to the state for review within a few weeks.

With the infrastructure improvements, the district is planning to change the way it feeds students.

The high school kitchen used to prepare all meals and ship them to each school. Now every building will be able to prepare fresh meals on-site. The Aquebogue Elementary School’s kitchen was the first to be completed and staffers there are currently preparing meals.

Ms. Carney said the district’s wellness committee will hold its first meeting Wednesday to come up with a new food service plan, including menus and partnerships with local farms. The committee is made up of school officials and Riverhead school board members.

As for the lunch staff, Ms. Carney said the district didn’t need to hire more employees because it was able to relocate some from the high school to other buildings.

In addition to the renovation of existing spaces at Riverhead High School, the Star Academy is moving into the main building. This alternative program, which has been housed in the high school’s portable classrooms, provides an atmosphere that promotes academic success while addressing more individual needs and learning styles. Ms. Carney said the district’s goal was to stop using the portables and instead move students into the main building to better integrate them into the regular academic program, including electives and extra-curricular activities.

In addition to the major renovations, the school board recently approved a $1.7 million repair-reserve fund project for various upgrades at the high school, including replacement of lighting and crumbling concrete in the back plaza courtyard, repair of the south and student parking lots and replacement of a damaged ceiling and lighting in the cafeteria, school officials have said.

Ms. Carney said she believes the district has been very organized with construction planning and is “very pleased with the progress.”

“The kids and staff are so excited about the new buildings,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling to be in an environment that’s so conducive to learning.”

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04/17/13 10:44pm
RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Director of Facilities Mark Finnerty discusses new security features being added to  Riverhead schools.

RACHEL YOUNG PHOTO | Director of Facilities Mark Finnerty discusses new security features being added to Riverhead schools.

Riverhead Board of Education members voted unanimously at a special meeting Wednesday to use just over $100,000 from existing reserve funds to implement new districtwide security measures.

The new initiatives include purchasing new or upgraded security cameras, digital recorders, shatter-resistant film for glass windows, the addition of “Smart Key” technology and the creation of a bigger security office with large-screen video monitoring. The district has already updated their burglar panels, allowing them to put silent alarms in some offices.

“No matter what, you want your kids to be safe,” Superintendent Nancy Carney said. “We’ve put a lot in place, but we have a lot to work on.”

“We’re in a new era and a new world and we all know that,” she said. “These are very important conversations.”

The board unanimously rejected a second proposed option to raise the tax levy from 3.82 to 3.94 percent to cover the costs. Ms. Carney said dipping into reserves will not pose a problem for the district.

“Our reserves are in good shape because of very careful oversight of what we’re doing,” she said. “This is an option we feel very comfortable with.”

At Riverhead Middle School, a software program called Project Safeguard will be installed. The technology, which costs $22,000 and has already been purchased for Riverhead High School and will be implemented there by the end of the month, allows administrators to enhance current remote monitoring by producing a digital map of school grounds that marks key locations in the building — including areas with cameras, fire extinguishers and boilers —  with a colored icon.

“It’s very usable,” director of facilities Mark Finnerty said of Project Safeguard. “If there was an incident in the art room, the fire department would be able to pull this [program] up on their laptops and then give directions to their squad as to what door to enter.”

Mr. Finnerty said there are currently about 145 security cameras at Riverhead High School, 45 at Riverhead Middle School and about 25 at each elementary school. Of the cameras at the high school, Mr. Finnerty said, 100 of them were purchased in 2005. He said it would cost $22,500 to purchase new or upgraded cameras.

The measures, Ms. Carney said, are a good start, but she emphasized the importance of creating a culture of security in the district.

“I think it’s important to educate every single person,” she said. “Every one in the district can call an emergency. The more eyes … the better.”

Board trustee Thomas Carson agreed.

“This is not a one-shot deal,” he said of the approved purchases. “This is forever going on for the rest of our lives.”

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03/14/13 1:00pm
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Riverhead Board of Education vice president Greg Meyer cuts the ribbon Thursday to unveil the new library at Phillips Avenue Elementary School.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Riverhead Board of Education vice president Greg Meyer, left, cuts the ribbon Thursday to unveil the new library at Phillips Avenue Elementary School.

Riverhead School District officials unveiled the new library at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School Thursday, marking the first completed facility upgrade paid through a $78.3 million bond approved in 2011.

Work began at Phillips – the second oldest school in the district — this summer with reconfiguring the parking lot and bus drop-off loops, beautifying the entrance and gutting the school’s library to make room for a new “21st century” center.

The former 850-square-foot library has been expanded into a 2,000-square-foot space complete with designated learning spots, including a stadium seating section for readings, a collaborative-learning area with tables to conduct research projects and a computer lab.

The library is also slated to receive new windows, which will be paid through an energy performance contract.

In addition to new flooring and furniture, each of the three sections has a separate smartboard.

Phillips principal Debra Rodgers said she’s pleased with final results because it will encourage students to read more and to think creatively.

The new research area.

“It’s really exciting,” she said. “The community deserves this.”

Riverhead resident Bobbie Brown, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony, said he believes the space is the ideal environment for students to learn.

“This is gorgeous,” he said. “The transformation is just incredible.”

Phillips librarian Melanie Ash gave a tour to her students Thursday prior to the ribbon cutting ceremony and explained to them how they should use each section of their new space.

After showing her students how the library book checkout system works, Ms. Ash asked them to pick something to read.

William Pippin, 8, with a book he picked out at the new library.

“Here’s the Star Wars section, but some of these books can be a little rough,” she told her student William Pippin, 8.

“I can try,” he said. “I like those stories. My friend has Star Wars books and we read them on the bus.”

After the group of students picked something out, Ms. Ash read to them in their new read aloud area.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Superintendent Nancy Carney said about the completed project. “This is a wonderful day for Riverhead and I can’t wait for the work to progress on our other buildings.”

Ms. Carney said the Riley Avenue Elementary School will undergo a similar transformation as Phillips and the Aquebogue Elementary School will receive a new cafeteria. Capital improvement projects are scheduled to being at Riverhead High School this spring and at the middle school next fall. Construction at Roanoke and Pulaski elementary schools will start in spring 2014, she said.

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03/10/11 12:28pm
03/10/2011 12:28 PM

Deep into planning their budgets for the 2011-12 school year, area administrators and school board members are fixated on Albany.

That’s because the Legislature may approve sharp cuts in state aid and possibly even a 2 percent cap on tax hikes, which means school districts will have to keep spending flat unless they have large cash reserves from past years.

In separate interviews, superintendents from Riverhead, Southold and Brookhaven towns acknowledged that the state must close a deficit and local taxpayers are hurting. But some districts are better positioned to absorb the shocks this year than others.

In addition to cuts in state aid and a 2 percent tax cap, Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed four steps the Legislature can take to help school districts control spending:

• stop new underfunded state mandates;
• cut superintendent salaries in line with the number of students in a district;
• change the system for teacher evaluations and end the “last in, first out” policy for layoffs; and
• call on districts to use reserve funds to bridge gaps between what they need to spend and what they can bring in from tax revenues.

Riverhead Superintendent Nancy Carney called this year’s budget process a time of challenge for educational leaders to “make good decisions based on the situation at hand. I will continue to do my job, just as the governor is doing his,” she said. Her main focus is to prepare a “fiscally responsible budget that addresses academic needs” while remaining committed to the district and the community, she said.

“Mandate relief is necessary during these difficult economic times to provide communities with more flexibility,” Ms. Carney said. “It is yet to be seen if there will be substantive mandate relief passed by the Legislature.”

Similarly, Dr. Harriet Copel, Shoreham-Wading River superintendent, said existing mandates are making it “difficult for us to increase our budgets and make the changes we need to reduce our taxes.”

“It’s kind of a Catch-22,” said Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda. He’s required by the federal government to offer services to students who aren’t performing at specific levels and state relief can’t change that, he said.

Even if the state can cut back on some of those services, it’s questionable how much money a district might save, said Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna. If he’s allowed to offer fewer speech therapy classes a week, for example, it won’t save him the salary of a speech therapist, he said.

Mandates related to safety issues can’t be cut, so it becomes a question of “what are you going to eliminate,” Mr. McKenna said. “I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around what it really means to us. It’s sexy; it’s savvy to talk about,” he said.

The governor is moving in the right direction with mandate relief, said Southold Superintendent David Gamberg. But so far, he added, the news from Albany is “vague.” He’s optimistic that his district can survive the 2011-12 school term without sharp cuts in staff and programs. But the problem is systemic and needs careful evaluation, Mr. Gamberg said. Spending cuts have to be done “thoughtfully,” he said.

As for applying reserve funds to the 2011-12 budgets, that’s fine for districts that are flush, said Mr. Comanda of Greenport. But what about districts like his?

When he took the helm in the summer of 2009, well into the recession, he inherited practically empty reserves. Last year, he was able to save two teachers from layoffs only because the state offered a retirement incentive that enticed other teachers with long tenures to leave. The picture isn’t any less bleak as Mr. Comanda tackles budgeting for 2011-12, he said.

He said he wanted to ask the governor, “What are you prepared to do for districts that don’t have enough reserve funds?”

For districts that have to face teacher cuts, all superintendents agree that they shouldn’t be based on “last in, first out” policies or how students perform on standardized tests.

Of the suggestion that superintendents take sharp salary cuts based on the number of students in the district, Mr. McKenna said it was “part of a bigger puzzle. It’s glitzy to talk about,” he said, but there needs to be a bigger structural change in all educational salaries.

“Let somebody walk a day in my shoes” before they suggest cutting his $170,000 salary to $145,000 or $155,000, Mr. McKenna said. In a small district, administrators have a lot on their plates with little support, he said.

Mr. Comanda said he took a salary freeze last year and the district cut one administrative position, leaving him and two school principals to absorb more responsibilities. His current salary is $175,000. Under the governor’s plan, he would lose $30,000. Other superintendents would face similar salary cuts.
“We are not top-heavy,” said Mr. Gamberg. He has worked in districts with 8,000 students; his Southold district has about 900.

Dr. Copel speculated that cutting superintendents’ salaries wouldn’t have much impact on overall budgets. She agreed that the discussion needs to be in the context of all educational salaries.

“I think there are some fundamental instructional issues that need to be addressed in the funding and structure of public education in the state of New York, as well as some of the laws and some of the mandates that have not been addressed that really need to be changed,” Dr. Copel said. “It’s a much bigger problem than just what superintendents make.”

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02/09/11 6:00pm
02/09/2011 6:00 PM
BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead's Pulaski Street School.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead's Pulaski Street School.

Get ready for a healthy school tax hike.

Spending in the Riverhead School District would increase by 3.28 percent, or more than $3 million, under superintendent Nancy Carney’s proposed $111.8 million 2011-12 school year budget, a draft of which she unveiled at Tuesday night’s school board meeting. But the tax levy — the amount of cash the district collects from taxpayers — would go up 5.7 percent for 2011-12, which is $5.2 million.

That’s because Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed cutting $2.9 million, 16 percent, in state aid to the Riverhead district, causing administrators to plan for the worst, school officials said.

School districts also won’t be receiving federal stimulus funds in the 2011-12 year, which had been the case this school year, during which Riverhead received $750,952 in stimulus funds.

The governor’s proposal is part of a plan to eliminate a $10 billion state deficit.

The neighboring Shoreham-Wading River school district is facing an 11.62 percent state aid cut, or $985,326, courtesy of the governor’s first state budget proposal, which proposes to cut aid by 10 percent in Suffolk County and 7.3 percent statewide, reportedly one of the largest proposed statewide cuts ever.

”This is the worst it’s ever been,” Ms. Carney told the News-Review last week. She said that while governors customarily propose steeper cuts than what ends up being approved in the final state budget, the district still has to plan its budget based on the governor’s numbers, unless it gets other information.

“It’s totally not what we were expecting,” she continued. “We thought we might lose 5 percent of our state aid. We’re losing about 16 percent of our state aid. It’s huge.”

State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said the proposed cuts to Long Island schools were out of proportion with cuts elsewhere, and he said the state Senate’s new Republican majority seeks to change that.

“These are extremely difficult economic times and everyone is being asked to do more with less,” Mr. LaValle said. “However, no single region of the state should shoulder an unfair proportion of cuts to education. As in the past, the Long Island Senate delegation will work together to ensure L.I. schools are not being asked to underwrite cuts in education for other areas of the state.

“We will ensure that Long Island is treated fairly and equitably within the budget footprint.”

The final budget vote is May 17, but officials in Riverhead cannot make accurate tax rate estimates at that time because the district is split between three towns that have separate tax rates that are affected by factors like final state aid numbers, equalization rates and town assessment figures — which don’t become final until later in the year.

Ms. Carney said that 61 percent of the proposed increase is due to big increases in Teachers Retirement System contributions and the Employees Retirement System. Those numbers are dictated by the state and the district has little control of them. Combined, the two funds are scheduled to increase 40 percent, or $2.2 million, according to Ms. Carney.

Contractually mandated increases from negotiated and previously approved labor contracts also amount to $2.1 million, and would account for a 2.55 percent increase in the tax levy by itself, the superintendent said.

The projected 5.7 percent tax levy increase includes the use of $3.375 million in reserve funds to offset taxes, according to the draft budget proposal. Without the use of those reserves, the increase would have been about 7.8 percent.

The draft budget would use almost all the district’s reserve funds, which Ms. Carney said come to about $3.5 million. Governor Cuomo has said that most districts have enough reserve funds on hand to offset the aid cuts.

The superintendent said her spending plan proposes cuts to all sections of the budget, and will impact administrators, teachers and nonteaching staff.

The district is considering cutting some extracurricular activities, some sports programs, instituting larger class sizes, making staff cuts, with further reduction in building maintenance and fewer bus stops, she added.

“We have no choice but to make the cuts as if [state aid reductions] are going to happen,” school board president Ann Cotten-Degrasse said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

Ms. Carney said that if the budget had simply rolled over all existing costs, and factored in cost-of-living increases and increases in contractual issues like salaries, the spending increase would have been around 7 percent.

The school board has about three months to adopt a budget, which will be presented to the community for the May 17 vote.

As for the Shoreham-Wading River district, its outgoing superintendent has yet to draft a proposed budget.

“That’s a tremendous sum of money,” board president Jack Costas said of the possible $985,326 state aid cut. “Obviously we are going to be facing cuts ­— probably in athletics. We’re seeing where we might be able to eliminate teaching positions through attrition or, if we have to, layoffs. There’s always that possibility.”

Mr. Costas said “the only way to make up for the shortfall in aid is to increase the tax levy or to apply prior year state aid funds to bridge the gap.”
Shoreham-Wading River, which has a current budget of $57.9 million, is also losing $354,607 in stimulus funds.

“We’re in the beginning stages of formulating our budget,” Mr. Costas said. “It’s very difficult to propose a budget when Albany itself has not passed their budget. It’s a little bit of a guessing game. We’ll take the most conservative estimates available and that’s how we’ll formulate the budget.”

The governor is proposing to cut school aid by $1.5 billion statewide, but says this represents only 2.9 percent of total school expenditures across the state.

School aid is the largest state-supported program and represents 29 percent of New York’s general fund, the governor said in his budget address.

To offset some cuts moving forward, Mr. Cuomo hopes to develop a $250 million statewide grant system through which money would be awarded on a competitive basis to school districts that demonstrate significant improvement in student performance outcomes, and another $250 million to districts that undertake long-term structural changes to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

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