NYSUT's 'Fund Our Future' bus tour brought union leadership to Riverhead schools Friday afternoon. Courtesy photo: NYSUT

A blue, white and purple mini-bus emblazoned with the message, “Fund Our Public Schools. Fund Our Future” made its way around the Riverhead Central School district Friday afternoon, carrying New York State United Teachers president Andy Pallotta and other officials to three local school buildings where they heard from teachers, staff and parents about issues facing the cash-strapped district.

Riverhead was one of 400 stops the NYSUT tour aimed at drawing attention to the consequences of the state’s failure to fully fund foundation aid. Riverhead receives just $17 million of the $48 million due under the foundation aid formula — if the state fully funded it — a $31 million difference. Riverhead is one of a handful of districts that get less than 55% of their allotments under the formula. The statewide average is 80%.

The first stop on the Riverhead tour was Pulaski Street Elementary School, where officials toured the building and sat for a roundtable discussion with district administrators, teachers, staff and PTO members.

Four issues seemed to be common throughout all the district member’s concerns: overcrowded classrooms, cuts to school programs, limited nursing staff, and a need for more bilingual instructors.

School board member Laurie Downs speaks during the roundtable held at Pulaski Street Elementary School. Photo: Julia-Anna Searson

“I started with 24 kids in my classroom, I currently have 33,” said fifth grade teacher Cory Swenk. 

Riverhead School District has a total of 5,488 and Pulaski Street School has 820 fifth and sixth grade students. The student to teacher ratio is 16:1, compared to the state average of 14:1.

“The personal attention is not there,” said Swenk.

The tour’s next stop was Phillips Avenue Elementary School, including a tour of the three classrooms housed in outdoor modulars. 

“I’m not teaching art off a cart,” Phillips Avenue art teacher Christine Shay said. 

Her art class is in one of the modules at Phillips Avenue. The students were making a memorial art piece for the late fourth grade teacher Lana Randall. 

“They wouldn’t be able to do this kind of stuff from a cart,” said Shay. 

Programs from the Riverhead curriculum have already been cut. 

“That gifted and talented program never came back,” said Roanoke Avenue third grade teacher Donna Verbeck. “We don’t have enough for more than one school trip a year.” None of the elementary schools has a full-time librarian.

PTO members hold fundraisers throughout the school year to try to assist teachers and students to keep field trips and other enrichment programs.

“We as the PTO this year alone have had eleven fundraisers so that we can provide funds to the teachers to help gets these kids the extra enrichments these kids need in the classroom,” Riley Avenue PTO president Nicole Gigante said. “Whether it be for curriculum supplies, assemblies and programs, or that field trip that will give them more cultural diversity and exposure.”

School board member Laurie Downs said parents and teachers shouldn’t have to pay out of pocket to get kids what they need for school. 

“We [the PTO] try to give our kids as much as we can, but we are spread thin too,” Phillips Avenue PTO treasurer/translator Rebecca Collins said. 

The district’s nursing staff is spread thin as well. 

“They’re coming in with more health needs than every before,” said Aquebogue Elementary School nurse Dawn Carrera. 

She reported that across all Riverhead schools 800 kids walk into the nurse’s office each day. The health issues children have are not limited to just headaches and tummy aches, she said. The kids also have serious medical conditions such as severe allergies, diabetes, seizure disorders, and juvenile cancer.

“We have become the first line of defense,” Carrera said. 

The nurses also handle state-mandated physicals for athletes of all grades, yearly wellness exams and immunization documents. 

Families new to the country may have difficulties filling out the medical forms and the community tries to help them but they don’t have all the resources, Phillips Avenue Parent Association Daniela Perez said.  

“We try as much as we can, but there is not enough of us to support those families and to support the children and ensure they are successful,” she said.

Courtesy photo: NYSUT

In the 2009-2010 school year Riverhead Central School District 503 students were English Language Learners or ELL, 10.3% of the student population. In 2018-2019 the district had 1,539 ELL students, 27.5% of the student population.

“When I started in high school there was only four Latina girls. We didn’t even have an ELL class,” said Perez. “Now there is not enough space for the ELL students to fit in.”

NYSUT officials wrapped up the Riverhad tour with a rally at Riverhead Middle School. 

“We have toured the schools today and we see the great work that is being done and the dedication of the staff,” Pallotta told the crowd. 

“This is money that is owed to this district. This your money that is being held up,” Pallotta said.

“This is a crisis,” he said, ” and the governor’s budget doesn’t address it.”

NYSUT president Andy Pallotta spoke to the rally crowd.
Courtesy photo: Keri Stromski/Twitter

NYSUT will go to Albany on behalf of the 400 schools lacking full foundation aid and recount their school tour experiences to back up their demand that the state increase education aid by $2.1 billion in the 2020-21 year, which includes the first installment of a three-year phase-in of the more than $3.4 billion in foundation aid owed to more than 400 school districts around New York.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and State Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have drafted legislation requiring the State Education Department to increase foundation aid funding to schools that meet certain criteria, including current foundation aid funding at less than 55% of the formula amount. The bill’s criteria would include eligibility parameters such as student population increases, students eligible for free and reduced lunch and ELL student population. 

“Keep the fight going,” Pallota told the rally crowd Friday, encouraging community members to take part in rallies planned across the state on March 27. 

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Julia-Anna Searson
Julia-Anna is a Riverhead native and a recent graduate of Stony Brook University, with a degree in Biology and minor in Anthropology. She currently lives in Cutchogue.