File photo: George Faella

What gets cut?

Riverhead school board members and district administrators spent a couple of hours wrestling with that issue at last night’s board meeting, trying to figure out how to live within the $144.8 million contingent budget while managing to maintain educational programs and at least some of the extracurricular and sports programs the school community is clamoring to keep.

The district must shave $2.3 million off the proposed 2020-2021 budget twice rejected by voters this year.

And the decisions must be made despite not knowing the full impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic — including whether schools will be even partially open for in-person instruction this fall.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo today announced that schools in New York are clear to reopen this fall as long as COVID positive test rates in the school’s region are under 5%, and, once open, remain under 10%.

Interim School Superintendent Christine Tona and Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider presented the board with options to meet the goal of reducing expenditures to the level allowed by law under a contingent budget.

Tona went through a menu of potential reductions, that would reduce spending by $2.33 million. These include excessing or partially excessing teaching positions at the high school and Pulaski Street and not filling a vacant science teacher position at Pulaski. Other positions including clerical and custodial positions would either be excessed or, in the case of some already-vacant posts, not filled. Sports programs (varsity, JV and middle school), clubs, music performances would be eliminated, as well as after-school buses.

Board members generally expressed resistance to eliminating varsity sports and music performances at the high school. They discussed other cuts that would allow those programs to be funded and asked Tona and Schneider to prepare different scenarios of other cuts that would allow varsity sports and high school music performances to continue.

The sports schedule remains up in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tona told the board. The NYS Public High School Athletic Association has informed school districts that if fall sports cannot be commenced by Sept. 21, the winter and spring sports schedules would be shifted and abbreviated and fall sports would be moved to spring. Each season would have a 10-week schedule.

Academic program cuts considered

Some other potential cuts the board discussed last night included a library teacher at Pulaski, a literacy coach, reducing the number of elementary school sections — resulting in larger class sizes — cutting back K-4 elementary school security guards from two to one per building and reducing the number of program directors.

Board members also discussed savings to be realized from excessing math and reading academic intervention services at elementary schools, one teaching assistant in each kindergarten classroom, and upper level foreign language courses.

Trustee Christopher Dorr questioned the expense of the English as a New Language program and, particularly, the length of time English language learners spend in the program. He said he thinks students should not be in the ENL program for longer than four years. After three or four years, they should be proficient in English, Dorr said.

“I thought I saw somewhere that after seven years you don’t have to provide services for ENL anymore— if they’re in the program for seven years or longer,” Dorr said.

Tona said research shows it takes five to seven years for English language learners to master the language. She said most students who come into the district in the early grades exit the program in Middle School.

“Well, I’m looking at our English-speaking students that are required to take a foreign language and be mastering it in three years, then pass a Regents — Spanish, French, Latin, whatever — within three years our English-speaking students have to be proficient in a language in order to get a Regents diploma,” Dorr said.

“That’s a different level of proficiency,” Tona said.

“I think we have to really re-evaluate how we’re educating these ELL students,” Dorr said.

Tona said the older a student is when they first begin learning English, the harder it is and the longer it takes to attain proficiency. Younger students learn new languages faster, she said.

This is totally uncharted territory

Trustee Brian Connelly spoke out against the idea of cutting a security guard in the elementary school buildings and cutting back on teaching assistants and academic intervention services in elementary schools.

A second guard will be important to help deal with issues that will arise when children return to schools during this pandemic, Connelly said.

“We’re going into the unknown,” Connelly said.

Connelly said the district should conduct a survey to determine student interest in the various varsity sports and provide the board with a breakdown of what each sport costs.

“As far as AIS and TAs,” he said, “they’re needed.” If the district takes away AIS, the kids are just going to fall farther behind, he said.

“But then again, the music and the sports are needed for these children just as much,” Dorr said. “I mean, there are students, their whole college career is based on their performances. To take that away from them. It’s tough.”

When Dorr said the district can’t make decisions based on “living in fear,” Connelly, a NYC firefighter took offense.

“Nobody said anything about living in fear. I’m somebody who’s on the front line and sees it every day. And the bottom line is we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Connelly said. “I’d love to just go back to brick and mortar, every kid go back to school and say that right now — vote on that and be done. But unfortunately we can’t,” he said.

“This is totally uncharted territory for everybody,” Connelly said.

“And if you lose out on some sports so we keep education? Our job is to educate the kids. That is our job — bottom line. I want to keep everything, but we can’t. And that kills me,” Connelly said.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Dorr said. “And I know I’ve been inundated since the town turned their back on the students and didn’t get the budget through of how we’re going to save these programs for the kids,” Dorr said.

“And it’s been how we’re gonna save music and how we’re going to save sports. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a single phone call or a single email or a text about saving a program. It’s all been about saving the music and the sports and that’s what the community is concerned about,” Dorr said.

Mortgaging the future of every child

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Gregory Wallace said today “the alternative cuts that the board would need to make to preserve sports, music and extracurricular activities would forever devastate education in this district.”

“To wipe out academic intervention services, reading services and upper level foreign language, in addition to raising elementary class size, to fund activities that we are not even sure will happen is reckless,” Wallace said. “They would be mortgaging the future of every child in this district to fund activities that are in doubt as a result of the pandemic,” he said.

“If the board of education preserves sports, clubs and music performances at the expense of these programs, they are abdicating their responsibility to our students and our district and are unfit for the office they currently hold,” Wallace said.

Tona said, based on last night’s discussion, she and Schneider will come back with additional scenarios at a special board meeting to be held on Tuesday.

Schneider said the board could consider “the option of dipping into the 4% fund balance, which is not — I want to emphasize not — a good long-term financial plan, but in a one-year emergency situation, that’s why it’s there.”

The unspent funds from 2019-2020 will be held in reserve to fill any budget hole created by the mid-year cut in state aid the governor warned is coming, Schneider said. Cuomo warned unless the federal government provides financial relief to state and local governments reeling from the COVID crisis, they would face as much as a 20% cut in aid.

Schneider said the district’s 2019-2020 financial audit will be done in approximately three weeks and at that point he will have an exact dollar figure on the amount of unspent funds.

“I’m reluctant to say any number publicly until then, because I don’t want to say a number and have the board and the public get attached to that number and then change it,” he said.

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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.