A crowd of more than 250 people packed the middle school cafetorium Jan. 18 for a rally to demand Riverhead's fair share of state education aid. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A large crowd packed the Riverhead Middle School cafetorium this afternoon to rally for the district’s fair share of state education aid.

They came bearing colorful hand-made signs and burst into chants of “Fair share now!” lead by Riley Avenue fourth-grade teacher Edward Tholl.

“We are just getting started,” School Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez told the crowd of more than 250 people who turned out for the rally. “We come together today for one reason — the reason — and that is our children,” she said.

Henriquez and school board president Gregory Meyer both explained the extent to which the Riverhead Central School District is shortchanged by the state.

“Had foundation aid been fully funded in Riverhead, we would be receiving $48 million this year,” Meyer told the crowd. “Instead, we will be receiving about $17 million,” he said.

The $31 million difference would pay for more teachers, counselors and much-needed staff, Henriquez said. “We would be able to afford things like a nine-period day and a desperately needed alternative school — things that other districts are able to provide,” she said. “Why don’t our children — all of our children — deserve the same?”

“Foundation aid” — unrestricted state aid to school districts for school operation and maintenance, is intended to ensure that the state fulfills its obligation to provide equal education to all students.

School districts across New York get an average of 80% of the maximum potential foundation aid for which they are eligible under complex formulas that take into account the districts’ land wealth, poverty levels and special student needs.

Riverhead — along with four other districts that have joined together in the fight for equity, dubbing themselves the “Harmed Suburban Five” — gets less than 50% of its maximum potential foundation aid.

“Why does Southampton get their fair share?” asked Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, one of several speakers at the rally. “Why does Quogue get their fair share? And I ask why does Westhampton get their fair share — and not Riverhead? Not only these three towns but most of all the towns around us get their fair share. Why? We need answers,” she said.

“Today Jan. 18, 2020, we are in our own turf with a cry out. Soon it should be Albany and Washington should follow, if need be. If the money doesn’t come to us, we’re going to go and get it.”

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace spoke about the economic disparity in the community, where some students “eat breakfast by the Sound each morning,” while other students “live in abject poverty” and “the only hot meal they have each day is the one they are served at the school lunch counter.” There are an increasing number of children who require a high level of services, Wallace said.

“Psychologists and social workers have seen their caseloads increase exponentially while resources either remain static or decline,” he said.

“To add insult to injury, New York State utilizes standardized test scores to tell our students, teachers, parents and community that we are a school in need of improvement,” Wallace said. “The irony is the state cites these flawed assessments to tell us we are ‘less than’ — all the while they owe Riverhead Central School District $31 million in foundation aid,” he said.

“The failure is not that of the students, the teachers, the parents or the community. The failure is that of the state for not funding the future of the students here in Riverhead,” Wallace said.

Wallace said New York State United Teachers is conducting a “Fund Our Future” bus tour across the state to raise awareness of the more than $3.4 billion in foundation aid owed to districts statewide and to highlight the impacts of the funding shortfall on local school districts.

NYSUT president Andrew Pallotta and the “Fund Our Future” bus will be in Riverhead on Jan. 31, Wallace said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent, a retired teacher who taught in the district for 33 years, and a Riverhead High School graduate herself, implored the community to stand together and demand that state lawmakers “garner the courage needed to level the playing field.”

“Our kids deserve better and the time for change is right now,” Kent said.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt told the crowd that the town board “stands with the administration, the school board the teachers the parents and, of course, ultimately the students. We need our fair share for them.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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