Riverhead school facilities need a $100 million expansion and upgrade to keep pace with population growth in the district, according a capital facilities proposal presented by school officials at the board of education meeting last night.
The district unveiled a $99.9 million construction bond proposal to expand and improve the district’s current assets. Officials said they have backed away from the idea of purchasing and renovating the former Bishop McGann-Mercy High School campus, largely because that would come with a price tag of $125.6 million.
“There were multiple factors that played into our decision, but in the end, it really came down to the [additional] $25 million more to go to the public,” school board president Greg Meyer said in an interview.
The proposal, presented last night at an unusually well-attended school board meeting in the high school cafeteria, is the result of several studies and projections — including a Western Suffolk BOCES long-range planning study— that examined current and projected increased student enrollment, particularly at the secondary level, and its impacts on the district’s space requirements.
Riverhead, unlike other area school districts, has seen an increase in enrollment during the last 10 years. The total enrollment in the district increased from 4,816 students in 2009-2010 to 5,595 students in 2018-2019 — an increase of more than 16 percent.
This historic increase, said district architect Kevin Walsh, has created a dire need for more space to accommodate students.
Currently, Pulaski Street Elementary School is at 114% capacity, the high school is at 98% capacity, and the middle school is at a 70%, according to data provided by the district. Overall, all other elementary schools are at or below the 85 percent capacity, which is the optimal goal for the entire district, Meyer said.
Some parents disagreed with that assessment yesterday, saying that it’s not only secondary schools that are being affected. Some kindergarten and second grade students at Riley Elementary School, they said, have been sent to Aquebogue Elementary School, where there are less students, because some classes at Riley, they said, are at full capacity.
“I’m very concerned as a teacher, as a union leader, as a community member, I’m very concerned with class sizes, because, we all know, with the research, those foundational years, how important it is,” Riverhead resident Jason Ranghelli, who has three children at Riley Elementary School, said. “I know the focus is now on secondary, but what about primary?”
Meyer said in an interview that overall, elementary schools enrollment numbers are “in pretty decent shape when it comes to the space,” and while he agrees with some parents that smaller class sizes are important, especially at certain levels, the district will have to prioritize and focus on the immediate needs.
“It’s that fine line that you walk. If you want to add more classrooms it is more and more and more money,” he said. “We have to focus on our needs now and our needs on the future, and what is projected.”
According to the presentation by BBS Architects, Landscape Architects and Engineers, the new improvements would include:
- adding 24 new classrooms at the high school, extending the cafeteria area, increasing physical education locker space and eliminating the north modulars;
- combining the student populations of Pulaski Street Elementary School and Riverhead Middle School, to create two buildings to house grades 5 through 8;
- reconfiguring existing athletic facilities and parking areas, including the construction of a new synthetic turf field and stadium running track;
- constructing a new 20,000-square-foot administration building, which will house the district office and pupil personnel services;
- constructing a new 14,000-square-foot field house that will be home to a 115- by 91-foot indoor turf field and running track, as well as bathrooms, coat storage areas and team meeting rooms;
- building a new memorial garden with the relocated “victory bell; and
- building a new, lighted intra-campus boulevard that would connect everything so students and staff can walk from building to building without exiting the campus through side streets.
Meyer emphasized the importance of the new field house. He said that the district had had issues with space for indoor gym and indoor practice competitions going back as far as 10 years ago, but that a proposal to add a second gym at the middle school had been “shut down” by taxpayers then. He said that the need for an indoor recreational space has only grown since then and cited as an example the winter track team, which has about 160 students participating and now has to train by running through the hallways of the high school.
“I thank God no kid has ever slipped and fell and cracked their skull,” Meyer said.
He also said that the district would be open to “team up“ with the Town of Riverhead’s recreation department, which could in turn offer activities at the new field house for the whole community.
Additionally, the bond would also include capital projects such as roofing replacement or repairs, new boilers, toilets and other improvements at the different schools, district-wide LED lighting replacement, and district security program upgrades.
The McGann-Mercy alternative, Walsh explained, would have meant a $14 million purchase price, plus another approximately $47 million to bring it to current New York state school safety standards, as well as other necessary capital expenditures, which would bring the total cost to $125.6 million. Additional costs not yet estimated such as staffing, maintenance and transportation accommodations for the new building would also have to be considered, Walsh said.
“There were just too many unknowns there,” said Meyer. “We were afraid to get involved with something that might have turned into a money pit.”
Meyer said that, in addition to the $99.9 million bond proposition, district voters will also have to decide whether to approve or not a second proposition that would unify all pre-kindergarten programs into one building or wing at Phillips Avenue Elementary School. This project would have an additional cost of $8.3 million.
Officials have scheduled four community forums to discuss the proposal. They will take place at Riverhead High School (Room 133) on Thursday, Sept. 19, from 6 to 7 p.m., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, Tuesday Oct. 22 and Tuesday, Oct. 29 from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
If the district moves ahead with the plan, the bond could be submitted to a district-wide vote as early as January 2020. A fall, 2023 completion date is projected.
In October 2011 district voters approved a $78.3 million capital construction bond for renovations, upgrades and additions to the district’s school buildings. The three-year construction project got underway in 2012 and was completed in the summer of 2015. The work included a two-story addition to the high school that added 15 new classrooms, four state-of-the-art science labs and offices; new cafeterias, classrooms and bathrooms in other school buildings, as well as infrastructure work, equipment upgrades and improvements to athletic facilities.
The October 2011 bond was a scaled-back version of a $124 million capital construction bond overwhelmingly rejected by district voters in February 2010.
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