Students at a rally for an increase in state aid held at Riverhead Middle School Jan. 19. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead school district officials began rolling out the district’s proposed 2020-2021 operating budget at its board of education meeting last week.

The district has calculated its tax levy cap for 2020-2021 to be 2.29% over last year’s tax levy, or $106,937,337, according to the budget presentation given by Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez and Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider. Any tax levy increase above that cap would require approval by 2/3 of voters in the May 19 budget vote.

In addition to the local property tax levy, the district funds its operating costs — which last year ran to $144.4 million — with state aid, PILOT payments (payments in lieu of taxes, pursuant to written agreements with certain property owners), tuitions, interest payments and some allocation of fund balances (savings).

The big-ticket item on the revenue side of the budget is state aid, which last year totaled $32,524,604. The governor’s proposed budget includes $34,777,118 in state education aid for Riverhead, but the final amount will not be known until state lawmakers and the governor agree on the state’s 2020-2021 operating budget. The state constitution requires the state budget to be adopted by April 1.

The state teachers union and school districts across the state have been organizing to secure more foundation aid — unrestricted, general support — from the state. Riverhead is one of a small number of districts being funded at less than 55% of the full amount required by the foundation aid formula. Most districts are receiving 80%. Fully funded foundation aid would mean an additional approximately $30 million for Riverhead.

“This is money that is owed to this district. This your money that is being held up,” New York State United Teachers president Andy Pallotta told district officials, teachers, staff and families on Jan. 31, when NYSUT’s “Fund our Future” bus tour stopped in Riverhead.

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

NYSUT is demanding a three-year phase-in of full funding statewide, which would require an additional outlay of $2.1 billion in foundation aid in the state’s 2020-2021 budget.

The state is already grappling with a $6.1 billion budget deficit this year. That gap must first be closed, local state lawmakers said last month, when they introduced legislation to require the State Education Department to increase foundation aid for districts, like Riverhead, that receive less than 55% of the foundation aid formula amount. The legislation does not specify the amount of any increase, but would ensure that the underfunding is addressed during the budget process, according to Sen. Ken LaValle and Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr., who sponsored the bills in their respective legislative chambers.

During the budget presentation last week, the district presented proposed expenditure amounts in 2020-2021 for general support services, benefits and debt service.

General support includes expenditures for the district’s central administration, including the superintendent’s office, business office and personnel office, as well as the district’s auditing and insurance expenses and the district’s mandated share of BOCES administration costs. These expenditures would rise 2.22% over last year’s adopted budget.

Benefits — which includes the district’s mandated contribution to the state pension systems for its faculty and staff, as well as the cost of health insurance, unemployment insurance and workers compensation insurance — will rise 4.58% in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, to $33,087,001.

The district’s debt service — the carrying costs of prior borrowing, including payments of principal and interest — will remain about the same, increasing .05% to $8,336,703 in the coming year.

The debt service expenses include: past construction bonds ($5,943,198); borrowing for the turf field and bus purchases ($1,122,920); interest on a tax anticipation note ($687,500) issued to cover district operating expenses until tax revenues come in — a period of at least six months because the district’s fiscal year begins July 1 while the town and county fiscal year begins the following January; and interest on borrowing for the energy performance contract, covering upgrades to make facilities more energy-efficient ($583,086).

The proposed new capital bond, which goes to a vote in one week — on Tuesday, Feb. 25 — if approved, will not affect debt service in the coming fiscal year.

The next budget presentation will take place March 10, when the superintendent will present the “regular day school,” transportation and facilities expenses. On March 24, the special education, PPS, guidance and other instructional items will be discussed, along with projected revenues and the projected tax levy.

The budget vote and school board election will take place on May 19.

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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.