A crowd turned out to object to the Riverhead Charter School expansion plan at a school board public hearing Feb. 11. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Emotions ran high at a contentious public hearing Tuesday night on a proposed expansion by the Riverhead Charter School—which has submitted an application to the New York State Department of Education to revise its charter and increase its enrollment capacity from 787 to 1,037 students over the next two years. Dozens of residents passionately voiced their opposition at an unusually well-attended Riverhead Central School District Board of Education meeting.

District officials opened the hearing with an analysis on the charter school enrollment for the past nine years, which showed a steady increase of students from RCSD attending the charter school. Currently there are 387 students from the Riverhead school district at the charter school — almost half of its total enrollment capacity — an increase of more than 70% over the past decade.

The trend is alarming to district officials, who point to the per-pupil tuition payments that the district must make to Riverhead Charter School: $18,500 per student, not including transportation and special education costs, according to Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider. The tuition payment is based on the district’s cost per student.

At a time when the district is hoping to convince taxpayers to approve a $97 million capital construction bond and struggling with state education aid levels far lower than the statewide average, payment of about $7 million in tuition to the Riverhead Charter School is a bitter pill to swallow for district officials, teachers and parents alike.

Riverhead schools Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez and administrators who oversee curriculum and instruction vigorously defended the district and what it has to offer students, emphasizing its inclusivity, diversity and academic variety. 

“I just want to set the record straight and say that we are very confident in the opportunities offered to all students here in the Riverhead Central School District,” Henriquez said. “Riverhead Central School District supports the whole student. We educate all children. And our goal here in Riverhead is that of inclusive excellence.”

“We will put our programs, and our staff up against any district on Long Island and be very proud of the work that we turn out here, and the future citizens that we prepare here in the Riverhead Central School District,“ she added to the applause and cheers of members of the audience. 

Charter school board of trustees president Aimee Lomonaco, quickly fired back after the presentation, saying she felt “compelled to answer the insinuations that Riverhead [district] teaches to all and perhaps Riverhead charter school chooses their students.”

Lomonaco said that the charter school is a public school of choice for parents and that it is lottery based. 

“Year over year, we’ve seen our charter expand and we’ve seen our wait-list expand,” Lomonaco said. 

“The number of students that we draw from you, yes, it’s a fair number, However, if you look at your own operations at current, where you’re operating at almost or exceeding capacity on all your buildings, I wonder what the impact would be, were we not in existence, were we not educating these children,” Lomonaco said. “So I ask that the public think about us not as competition, but as a choice — because that’s what our parents come to us for,” she said drawing applause from members of the audience in favor of the charter school expansion. 

Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Raymond Ankrum. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

“I would put my staff members against any staff members in the United States and I think that they would hold their own way,” Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Raymond Ankrum said when he took the podium. “So shout out to my staff.” 

Ankrum said when Henriquez first came to the Riverhead, he said he initiated a meeting with her. “Her words to me, her words, ‘You know that you are our competition.’ I want to reiterate the fact that we don’t have any competition. We’re here to educate kids.” 

About a dozen district employees and community members vehemently opposed the charter revision, defended the district and raised concerns about the funds redirected from the district to the charter school.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace, a Calverton resident, said that the charter school provides “no transparency” and “hand selects their students.” The charter school doesn’t have “democratically elected school boards, which are held accountable to the public,” Wallace said. The school is not “subject to oversight by the State Comptroller,” and its “funding takes priority over public schools.”

The district’s underfunding of foundation aid — by $31 million, according to officials — does not affect the charter school, Wallace said. 

“It is a parasitic relationship and public schools are the host organism,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by others in the audience opposed to the expansion.

Jamesport resident Cindy MacLeod, whose husband is a third grade teacher at Aquebogue, said that she opposed the expansion because she is “tired of [the charter school] leeching off of our students.” 

“My husband had less money, all the teachers had less money last year to buy [school] supplies for our students because that money had to go to the charter school,” MacLeod said. 

Akrum said in an interview that the foundation aid issue and the upcoming bond vote, combined with misinformation about the charter school, were not painting a clear picture for people. 

“If you need to stoke your base in order to get them to come out and vote for a $100 million bond, what you do is vilify the charter school and that is what happened last night,” he said. Ankrum added that the charter school was audited yearly and “reported all information to the state the same as any public school.”

Rosita Bridgewater, whose son Aaron has attended the charter school since kindergarten, said her son had not been “recruited.”  

“I find kind of petty what you guys are saying,” she said addressing audience members. “I have a choice. You don’t have a right to take my choice away from me and my choice is to send my son to the charter school.”

“You stand here and you talk about taxpayers’ money. I am a taxpayer too, so where my son goes, my money has a right to go with him,” she added.

Yessenia, whose special needs child attends the charter school, said through a translator she was very grateful for the charter school, where, she said, all children had better manners and better grades compared to other schools — a comment echoed by other charter school parents that sparked angry replies from district parents and teachers, who said district students are well-educated and have manners as well. 

“I had no intentions of speaking this evening, but I just wanted to say that our speakers this evening did not get personal and speak negatively about the charter school, teachers or the manners of their students,” said Rita Maloney, a Baiting Hollow resident and teacher of 28 years at Riley Avenue school. 

Omwatti Hernandez, mother of a charter school student, said the reason she put her younger son in the charter school was because of the “demographics” of Phillips Avenue Elementary School.

“When you’re left with those demographics for Phillips Avenue, what are you supposed to do?” she said. “It was either Catholic school or homeschooling him.”

Demographic data reported by the State Education Department shows the demographic breakdown at the two schools (for the 2018-2019 school year, the most recent avaalble on the SED website) is not very dissimilar. Each is majority Latino (65% at the charter school, 73% at Phillips). Nearly 25% of the student body at RCS is African-American, while 12.3% of students at Phillips is African-American. White students account for 16.5% of students at RCS and 10.4% at Phillips.

Henriquez quickly fired back at Hernandez, saying “the “district stands behind the experience offered at Phillips Avenue Elementary School.” She was joined by the school principal Deb Rodgers, as well as teachers and parents at the Riverside school. The district’s demographics, diversity and openness are what makes it “excellent,” they argue.

School board member Sue Koukounas was the only member to weigh in on the debate. She said that while she appreciated all the input, in her opinion “the charter school has a heavy price tag per pupil.” The charter school system does not have accountability, Koukounas said, stating that she does not support the expansion.

While the Riverhead Central School District is required by law to hold a public hearing on any charter school application within its district boundaries, it has no say over whether a charter school application is approved. That authority belongs to the State Board of Regents. The school board essentially collects public comments and forwards them to the regents.

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María del Mar is a contributor to RiverheadLOCAL and the editor and founder of Tu Prensa Local, a Spanish-language local news outlet on Long Island. Maria has won several awards for her work, including a first place best column award from the New York Press Association. Email Maria