Editor’s note: Correction appended.

After the defeat of the school district’s capital construction bonds last week, residents are asking town officials to focus on overcrowded housing and code enforcement in Riverhead. They believe that housing conditions in Riverhead and lack of effective code enforcement by the town are major factors in the school district’s rising enroll ment numbers.

The lack of hard data on the issue was evident during a discussion at the town board’s meeting Tuesday.

Some residents and some town officials say that the school district needs to do more to ensure that students enrolled in Riverhead schools actually live in the district.

The Riverhead Central School District’s boundaries are not the same as the Town of Riverhead’s boundaries. The school district extends into part of the Town of Southampton — Flanders, Riverside and Northampton — and part of the Town of Brookhaven — portions of Calverton and Manorville. The district also does not take in the entire Town of Riverhead. A portion of Wading River in the Town of Riverhead is in the Shoreham-Wading River school district. A piece of Laurel is in the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the Riverhead school district the number of students in the district who live in the towns of Southampton and Brookhaven. The district said it had no records responsive to her request, she said.

Giglio’s FOIL request also sought: “Affidavits submitted to the Riverhead School District by the property owner listing all of their tenants living on the premises including school age children. Affidavits submitted to the Riverhead School District by the property owner on an annual basis for the renewal of student registration listing all of their tenants living on the premises including any new tenants and any school age children. Rental leases/deeds submitted to the Riverhead School District on an annual basis for the rental of student registration to confirm residency in Riverhead.”

The district’s response was that it had no documents responsive to the councilwoman’s request.

Indeed, the Riverhead school district’s registration policy does not require the documents Giglio sought. The district requires a document to show the person seeking to register their child either owns or leases a home within the district: a deed or tax bill or a notarized lease or rental agreement or an affidavit from a landlord, owner or tenant from whom the parent leases or with whom they share a residence within the district.

Giglio argued that the Riverhead school district’s requirements for establishing residency are not stringent enough.

Giglio said the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district requires the property owner to sign an affidavit with the lease “and they have to list all the names of the tenants within that structure if it’s not owner-occupied and then they have to sign that affidavit and they have to say that ‘I know if this situation changes, I have to notify the school district and if I don’t notify the school district that those people are no longer living there, that I can be penalized for and have to pay for their transportation and their education.’ And the owners have to sign under penalty of perjury that they have to notify the school district if that rental agreement is no longer in place.”

Matittuck-Cutchogue’s registration documents, available on the district website, includes a rental registration affidavit to be completed by the homeowner if the student(s) live in a rented dwelling. In the affidavit the homeowner acknowledges responsibility to inform the district if the students move out of the house. The affidavit states, “I also understand that as the homeowner, I may be liable for tuition and/or transportation costs for each student listed above that received services from or attended the Mattituck Cutchogue UFSD.”

In Riverhead, Giglio said, “the enrollment process for children that are here or for any children that’s coming to the Riverhead School District, as you say, you know, ‘I’m the aunt or I’m the uncle and I’m taking this kid in’ — and the kid is enrolled in the school. And I think that it’s problematic.

Giglio said she had noticed a house where a contractor was working on a detached “2,600-square-foot garage” and the residents had put out bulk waste for pickup on a day that was not a bulk waste collection day — prompting the councilwoman to call code enforcement and ask them to write the owner a ticket.

“A week later, I see a minivan pull up at that house and I see two school-age children with backpacks on and they go into the house then five minutes later I see another car pull up and one school-age child gets out and they go into the house. It’s a 500 -square-foot house. So I sit there and wait for 45 minutes for the bus to come. I call the bus company and ask what time the bus is picking up at this address. I wait 45 minutes and I watch all three children get on the bus,” Giglio said.

Councilwoman Catherine Kent cautioned Giglio about this. She said she’s seen people post pictures on social media of young children getting onto school buses, questioning whether they really lived at the houses they were picked up from.

“It would be very upsetting to me as a parent if I though people were sitting in cars watching my children go into a house, that they are sitting there watching them and taking pictures, posting pictures of children, little first-graders,” Kent said. “People need to think about how you would feel if that were your child and people were sitting in cars and sort of stalking them and taking pictures. I just doesn’t work in today’s world.”

Giglio took exception to Kent’s comments. “If you’re referring to me, it wasn’t stalking,” Giglio said. “It was a drive-by observation of a minivan dropping children off to a house and then calling the school district to find out how many kids are registered to that house,” Giglio said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar advocated requiring parents or guardians to file a notarized residency affidavit, such as the one in use by the Quogue Union Free School District. She distributed copies of the Quogue affidavit to board members and the public. That district requires three proofs of residency, such as drivers license, deed, lease, income tax return or documents issued by a government agency stating physical address.

Aguiar said when she proposed Riverhead adopt the use of such an affidavit, school officials said they are illegal.

Giglio said the Riverhead school district should require all deeds and leases to be resubmitted annually.

“In my opinion, there are a lot of people that are attending Riverhead school district and they no longer live in those houses but are still registered in the school district,” she asserted.

Imposing requirements for annual resubmission of documents may run afoul of the law, according to the State Attorney General’s Office. The AG issued a cease and desist letter to the Oyster Bay-East Norwich School District on Feb. 28 demanding that the Nassau County school district rescind a new policy requiring the annual resubmission of documents to prove residency and essentially “re-register” with the district “regardless of whether a question exists as to the residency status of an individual student.”

That is an “onerous” requirement that is “not compatible with the text and purpose of the regulations, and/or do not relate to determining whether an individual is an inhabitant within the district or intends to reside in the district,” the attorney general’s office wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to Oyster Bay-East Norwich. The AG threatened legal action if the district does not meet its demand, within 14 days, to write a new policy that complies with the law. The AG’s action in Oyster Bay was reported today by Newsday.

Calverton resident Sal Mastropaolo said he believes Riverhead is “getting the bulk of the placements” of unaccompanied children, “because all the other school districts are going down in numbers and Riverhead is going up.”

Mastropaolo said Suffolk County has the largest number of placements in the state — over 5,000 he said. He has been trying to find out how many of those children have been placed in the town of Riverhead, requesting data from County Legislator Al Krupski and Rep. Lee Zeldin. He asked town board members to “exert pressure” on the lawmakers to find out the numbers.

“It’s to your benefit and the school’s benefit to understand the numbers of unaccompanied alien children being placed in our town. It’s adding to our illegal housing and it’s adding to our school district concerns,” Mastropaolo said.

“I agree with you,” Giglio replied. The enrollment process in Riverhead needs to be “vamped up,” she said.

The supervisor said the joint task force created by the town board last month will allow town officials, school officials and community members to work together to solve the problems. “It’s going to make a substantial difference.”

“And we also need to address the homes that have eight children with their parents or one parent living in the basement,” Aguiar said. “Obviously these homes don’t have proper electricity, proper forms of egress and we don’t want to lose six or eight children to a fire because we didn’t do what we had to do.”

Aguiar said the town has brought three Supreme Court actions for housing violations since she took office.

“In two months we have three Supreme Court decisions filed,” Aguiar said, referring to the pair of complaints filed Feb. 21.

“Code enforcement, the town attorneys, they’re working diligently. And again, we’re going to continue on this on this avenue. We’re hoping that we get input and the community supports us in this effort,” Aguiar said.

As of Wednesday, the town has commenced two actions in State Supreme Court this year, according to town attorney Robert Kozakiewicz. The third is still out for service of process, he said.

One lawsuit involves a house at 1050 Harrison Avenue in Riverhead allegedly rented without a town rental permit and allegedly occupied by numerous adults and two children. A second action involves a house at 734 Osborn Avenue allegedly rented without a town rental permit and allegedly occupied by nine adults and three children. Both lawsuits are based on investigations that took place in 2019.

“I’ve been working for the town for 21 years and I’ve seen this problem go from bad to worse,” said Investigator Richard Downs, who leads the town’s code enforcement office. Downs said Tuesday his office receives many complaints about overcrowded housing.

“I can personally tell you we handle these types of complaints accordingly and swiftly. They are expedited. They’re thoroughly investigated,” he said.

Determining whether a house is overcrowded isn’t just a matter of looking at whether it’s occupied by more than one traditional family unit or even by a certain number of persons. Laws that limited the number of unrelated persons who occupy a house have been struck down by courts — including the highest court in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are bound by New York State code when it comes to occupancy,” Downs said. The state code dictates how many people can occupy a bedroom, depending on the size of the bedroom. So the code enforcement division must know the size of the bedrooms as well as how many people sleep in them. And under almost all circumstances, lacking a search warrant, the officers have to get permission to enter the home.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Mattituck-Cutchogue school district’s registration documents did not include a document reciting a homeowner’s responsibility to notify the district if a tenant moves out of a rented dwelling and the homeowner’s responsibility for tuition and transportation costs for students if they do not live in the home or have moved out. Mattituck-Cutchogue registration documents do include a rental registration affidavit that makes these statements, as Councilwoman Jodi Giglio stated at the March 3 meeting. We regret the error.

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