Turnout was light for the school district's first community forum on its new bond proposal, but the residents who attended had a lot to say. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead school board members and district officials faced intense questioning and criticism from community members last night in the first community forum convened on the district’s $100 million construction bond proposal.

The school district last week unveiled a plan to expand and improve its current capital facilities at a cost of $106.2 million, of which $99.9 million would be financed by bonded borrowing.

District officials say rising student enrollment, which they say has escalated well beyond previous projections, has each of its school buildings operating at or even over capacity.

The meeting last night at the high school drew approximately 30 community members. Scheduled to run from 6 to 7 p.m., it lasted more than three hours. A planned presentation by BBS Architects was sidelined as members of the audience immediately began firing questions and complaints at district officials and the three board of education members who attended the sometimes contentious forum.

Residents voiced opposition to components of the capital improvement plan they called unnecessary, including the construction of new administrative offices and an athletics building — which, taken together, would cost $20 million.

School board president Greg Meyer and Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez both stressed that the proposal is just that — a proposal.

“No decision is set in stone,” Henriquez said. “Our purpose here tonight is to get your feedback.”

Residents blame town for overcrowded housing

During the often charged, three-hour session, many community members present focused their complaints on population growth in the local area, much of which has been growth in the Latino community. Though no one mentioned the area’s Latino population by name, many voiced complaints about overcrowded housing, which they blamed for the district’s burgeoning enrollment. Most pinned responsibility on town officials, whom they accused of failing to enforce housing codes.

“Have you discussed this with the town?” Baiting Hollow resident Ronnie Brooks asked. “It’s putting more of a strain on the schools and on the taxpayer.”

Meyer said school board members have been talking about this with town officials “for many years” without much result.

“The town knows exactly the situation we’re in,” Meyer said. “We’ve been talking to them for years, begging for them to do more code enforcement.”

Board member Laurie Downs agreed. She said she’s been on a committee appointed to liaison with the town. “It’s not our job to enforce it. They believe it’s our job,” she said.

Stephanie Ranghelli of Riverhead said the district needs to look at its enrollment process and make sure measures are in place to verify that students enrolling in the district actually live in the district.

“Our teachers are so frustrated,” said Ranghelli, herself a substitute teacher in Riverhead. “They’re weaving their hands, going, ‘How am I supposed to teach? How am I supposed to teach your children?’” she said.

“It has nothing to do with where you came from,” Ranghelli said. “I am from an immigrant family. I have immigrants in my family. We all do,” she said. “But it’s our children. It’s their education that this room needs to address and of course the town needs to address that. I am worried because I am a parent, I am an educator, I am a realtor and I see the trickle-down effect,” Ranghelli said.

She said this week she had a man looking to buy a house who told her, “I can’t send my kids to Riverhead.”

Enrollment increase driven by Latino community growth

The superintendent said the population growth in Riverhead is not something that just happened this year or last.

“This has been happening for a very long time in Riverhead. It’s been building and building. It’s not a problem we just found out we have,” Henriquez said.

The district had 5,891 students enrolled (K-12) as of Tuesday, according to data provided by the superintendent’s office, up more than 5% over the 2018/2019 school year, when enrollment was 5,595.

The K-12 student population has increased more than 22% in the past decade (from the 2010/2011 school year to the 2019/2020 school year.)

Though demographic data for the current school year and the 2018/2019 school year are not yet available on the State Education Department’s data website, the enrollment growth in the 10 years prior — 2008/2009 to 2017/2018 — was driven by growth in the district’s Latino population, which grew by 189% over that period.

There were 903 Latino students enrolled in Riverhead schools in 2008/2009 — 19% of the total enrollment of 4,712 students.

In 2017/2018, there were 2,611 Latino students in the district — 48% of the total enrollment of 5,488 students.

Conversely, the numbers of white students and black students steadily declined in the years between 2008/2009 and 2017/2018. There were 2,765 white students and 1,001 black students enrolled in the district in 2008/2009 — representing 60% and 21% of the student population, respectively. In the 2017/2018 school year, the number of white students enrolled was 2,088 — a 25% drop since 2008/2009. The number of black students fell even more sharply — 38% — to 622.

Projected enrollment data already short

Total K-12 enrollment projections provided to the district by Western Suffolk BOCES Office of School Planning and Research — the numbers the district used to calculate its space needs through 2028/2029 — estimate a peak enrollment of 5,772 students in the 2022/2023 school year. But the district has already exceeded that mark in the current school year. The projected enrollment this year was 5,664. The actual number as of earlier this week — 5,891 — exceeds that projection by 227 pupils.

Board members and district officials could not say last night whether the BOCES projections take into account the ambitious redevelopment plan being advanced for Riverside by the Town of Southampton. The Southampton Town Board has already adopted the zoning to implement the revitalization plan, which calls for, among other things, high-density housing. Planners said the new development, when fully built out, would increase the student population by 283 pupils. School board members at the time voiced skepticism about that number, expressing concern that the housing expected to be built in the area would result in many more students than the official projection.

To date, little construction has gotten underway in Riverside because Southampton Town must first build a wastewater treatment plant to accommodate it. Southampton Town has drawn plans for the plant and is finalizing financing for it. Once it is built and operational, officials expect the Riverside development to begin in earnest.

Jens-Smith: Housing issue is complicated

“This is a problem we have to stop. We’re going to spend this money and we’re going to still let the kids come in,” said Patrick Margolo. “It’s time we stand up and say, let’s stop the problem. But that’s not being talked about,” he said.

“We want to spend this money because we have a problem. We’re not stopping the problem. It’s like saying we want to send you to rehab, but we’re going to give you the drugs,” he said. “It can’t work like that. We have to stop the problem and then we can fix what we have.”

Margolo implored district officials to “bring the town board and town supervisor here.”

Riverhead Town assessor Laverne Tennenberg was the only town official present at the meeting.

In an interview yesterday, Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said Riverhead Town works to address overcrowded housing, but it’s not a simple process.

“Unless it rises to the level of criminality, we’re dealing with civil actions and it’s much more complicated,” Jens-Smith said. The town issues violation notices and can only enforce them by going to court.

Jens-Smith said the law determines the number of people who can inhabit a home according to the size of bedrooms. Former standards that limited the number of unrelated people who can live in a house have been ruled unconstitutional, she said. The town can only enforce codes on the basis of safety.

The supervisor said overcrowded housing usually involves “the same five or six landlords renting houses to large numbers of people for exorbitant amounts of money.”

Typically, the tenants are single men, she said.

Town code requires landlords to have rental permits to legally rent homes or apartments in Riverhead, though many property owners rent dwellings without rental permits.

Riverhead has recently increased staffing in its code enforcement office, which now has four investigators. The office acts on complaints as well as on its own initiative, according to town officials. The town offers an online code violation complaint form as well as a downloadable form that can be printed and mailed to the code enforcement office.

‘This is now a crisis’

Riverhead supervisor candidate Yvette Aguiar attended the forum and said afterwards the town needs to do more with code enforcement.

“I want to make it crystal clear: I’m all for legal immigration,” Aguiar said. “The issue here is our housing overcrowding. We have an excessive amount of students that are burdening our school. It’s not a federal problem or a state problem, it’s a town problem. And you solve it through the fire marshals, with law enforcement and code enforcement,” said Aguiar, a former NYC police officer.

“Many towns have a decrease in enrollment because they have viable programs. In Brookhaven, they fine these houses $5,000 the first time. You need a manager who understands this is a code enforcement problem,” Aguiar said.

She said going door-to-door with her husband as she campaigns, she has witnessed “people jumping out of windows because they thought we were ICE,” she said.

“This is now a crisis that needs to be dealt with and needs to be addressed — immediately.”

Complaints about transparency, community input

Among the other complaints aired at last night’s meeting was a the early scheduled start-times for the five community forums announced by the district last week. Four of them were scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

“People can’t get here after work,” Ronnie Brooks said. “Many more people would be here if these were scheduled for later in the evening.”

Meyer and Henriquez said the district would schedule meetings that will begin later in the evening.

Others complained that information about the proposal was not posted conspicuously on the district’s website.

Others faulted the district for developing the proposal without community input, the way the $78 million capital construction proposal was devised in 2010-2011.

“We should have had an open dialogue,” said Yolanda Thompson of Baiting Hollow.

Meyer, a longtime member of the district’s facilities committee, said the current proposal was drafted without a community committee because the last committee removed many things from the plan that were needed.

A community committee was formed to reassess a $123 million capital construction plan rejected by district voters in February 2010. The committee devised the scaled-down, $78 million version approved by voters in October 2011.

District taxpayers are still paying off that debt, which, according to schedules released at the time of the bond vote, won’t be fully retired until 2036.

‘We’re not Great Neck’

The debt to be incurred for the new construction plan, once fully bonded in year three of the project, will be about $7 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said last night.

Tennenberg said last night the “average” home in Riverhead Town has an assessed valuation of $43,500. The proposed bond would add another $304.50 to the typical homeowner’s property tax bill.

Former school board president Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, a member of the board in 2010 when the first large capital construction bond was proposed and its president in 2011, when the scaled-back version passed, advocated trimming the current proposal.

“We need the classrooms. Let the rest of it go,” Cotten-DeGrasse said. “We’re not Great Neck.”

Others agreed, saying the district should eliminate proposals to build new administrative offices and a “field house,” which together carry a $20 million price tag.

Meyer, who a decade ago advocated for a second gym at the high school — the subject of a second proposition in October 2011 that was rejected by voters — argued for the field house last night.

“The need for indoor space is dire,” Meyer said.

Margolo asked what taxpayers can expect going forward in terms of increased operating costs as the district continues to grow.

Meyer said the board is committed to staying within the 2% tax levy cap no matter what.

Calverton resident Sal Mastropaolo said the district should better utilize existing facilities before seeking to build more.

“Did the district consider split sessions?” he asked. “Classrooms are empty after 2:30,” Mastropaolo said. “Let’s use them till 5.”

“I will die on that hill and tell you that’s not the best educational experience,” Henriquez responded. “There’s plenty of research on that. It will impact their overall educational experience.”

Tennenberg cautioned district officials not to expect the town tax base to grow much. The development that may be coming at the Calverton Enterprise Park will almost certainly be granted tax abatements by the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency, she said.

Former school board president Angela DeVito suggested the board look into adding the school district to the list of special districts that are exempt from IDA property tax abatements. She said she believed that could be accomplished.

Meyer said he and other board members would go to any civic association meeting or homeowners association meeting to discuss the district’s space needs and get feedback on the proposal.

Kevin Walsh of BBS Architects eventually presented the proposal to the group. One audience member suggested it be shortened significantly by removing the analysis of the McGann-Mercy campus from the the presentation, since the board has said a McGann-Mercy acquisition is off the table.

“The meeting started out tough, but in the end, it was very productive and a very good meeting,” Henriquez said after it concluded.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.