School board Vice President Therese Zuhoski, left, and president Laurie Downs, with district lawyer Chris Venator after the vote was announced Tuesday night. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Voters rejected Riverhead Central School District’s proposed 2020-2021 operating budget for a second time — this time by just 59 votes.

The vote was 2,049 yes to 2,108 no. The tally included 454 absentee ballots.

The vote result means the district will continue to operated under the $144.8 million contingent budget adopted by the board of education last month.

“I’m very disappointed but the community has spoken and we respect the community’s decision we have a lot of work to do, we have to decide how to go forward with our programs,” Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said after the results were announced Tuesday night at just after 10 p.m. at Roanoke Avenue Elementary School.

Interim Superintendent Christine Tona and Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace react to the vote. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Tona said the board of education will decide whether any changes to the contingent budget can be made in order to maintain programs the district said could be cut back or eliminated if the budget failed on a re-vote, such as sports, music programs, clubs and electives.

A small crowd of school board members, district officials and teachers gathered at 9 p.m. in the Roanoke Avenue cafeteria, where the stifling heat of the day still hung in the still air. They conversed in mask-muffled voices as four election workers, seated at a table in the back of the room, opened and counted the absentee ballots. They finished the task at about 10 o’clock.

The room fell silent as Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider rolled a cart with a projector on it across the room to display the results.

School board members Brian Connelly, Matthew Wallace and Susan Koukounas wait. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Voters at Aquebogue Elementary supported the budget 659-602, the only election district with a significant positive result. The vote at Roanoke Avenue Elementary produced a near-tie: 327 yes to 326 no. Voters at Riley Avenue gave a thumbs down, 914 to 878. The budget fared worst in the Southampton Town part of the the district, where voters at Phillips Avenue said no by a vote of 266 to 185.

“Im very disappointed in the community,” school board president Laurie Downs said.

“The community has always come out and supported our children and they’re not now. It’s very sad, very sad for the kids,” Downs said. “They’re the ones who got hurt in this.”

Andrew MacGray, a 10th grader at Riverhead High School who was one of the organizers of a rally to support the budget held on Saturday at the Route 58 traffic circle, expressed a similar sentiment in a phone interview Tuesday night.

“It’s devastating to us students to see our community give up on us,” Andrew said. “But not everyone did, so we need to hold our heads high,” he said.

“It truly hurts to see the budget fail by so close,” he said.

Elections inspectors tally absentee ballots. Photo: Denise Civiletti

In June, the budget failed by 328 out of 6,020 votes cast: 3,173 no to 2,847 yes, in an election that saw a record-breaking turnout. The vote was conducted by mail, with absentee ballots mailed to every registered voter, pursuant to an executive order of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Riverhead was the only school district in Suffolk to reject its budget last month, and one of just 11 districts across the state to vote their budgets down.

“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace. “The voters rejected the budget so we’re going to be on austerity. As a parent in the district, I’m disappointed that my kids are going to get less than other kids elsewhere,” he said.

“Our children deserve better than this tonight.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, this article originally included an incorrect result in the voting at Phillips Avenue Elementary School.

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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.