A scene from the Riverhead Blue Masques production of "The Little Mermaid in 2018. File photo by Courtney Blasl

All sports, clubs and musical performances have been cut from the 2020-2021 contingent budget adopted by the Riverhead Board of Education in a split vote Tuesday night.

Field trips, school day activity busing and after-school buses also got the ax.

The school board opted not to eliminate or reduce any teaching positions, teaching assistants or academic intervention specialists.

A custodian position, a clerical position at the high school, a clerical position in the district office and funding for a computer technology support consultant were eliminated.

Equipment purchases and raises for individually contracted staff are also cut from the spending plan.

The board voted 4-3 to adopt the menu of budget cuts — prepared by former board president Susan Koukounas as an alternative to the options discussed at the last board meeting on Thursday. Board president Laurie Downs, members Virginia Healy, Koukounas and Matthew Wallace voted in favor of the cuts; members Brian Connelly, Chris Dorr and Therese Zuhoski voted no.

The reductions total $2,467,880 — $157,116 more than the $2,310,764 required to be cut from the $147.1 million budget twice rejected by district voters this year.

The board previously adopted a $144.8 million contingent budget, but had to decide what to cut from budget originally proposed this spring in order to live within the contingent budget amount. State law does not allow a contingent budget to increase the tax levy from the the prior year and prohibits expenditures on equipment and raises for individually contracted employees.

Emotions rose during the meeting as board members grappled with difficult choices. Board members all expressed dismay and frustration over having to eliminate anything and discussed different possibilities for retaining at least some sports programs, clubs and music performances.

Dorr was especially adamant in his opposition to cutting sports and music performances.

“I’m angry these kids are going to lose out on their senior year because of this stupid made-up virus,” Dorr said. “And I’m angry about 59 votes, the people who couldn’t get off their butts and get out and vote,” he said, referring to the margin by which the board’s proposed budget failed on the revote last month.

Riverhead Central Faculty Association president Greg Wallace, during the union’s regular opportunity to address the board at its meetings, criticized Dorr for his characterization of the coronavirus.

“Calling this a made-up virus,” he said. “We have faculty who were very sick with the virus. We have children who have had family members die. I found that comment to be incredibly offensive,” Wallace said.

Dorr later apologized for his choice of words, saying he let his anger get the best of him.

“I’m just very frustrated,” he said. “We’ve had other viruses come to this country that were much more detrimental,” Dorr said.

Parent Alyson Matwey said she, too, was very offended by Dorr calling the coronavirus a “made-up virus,” but said his second statement, which she called a “non-apology” was “another kick in the gut.”

“There are not other viruses that have killed 160,000 people,” Matwey said.

She said the board made a mistake to put the same budget up for a revote without making any cuts.

“And now the kids are suffering,” she said.

Other parents who attended the meeting, which was held virtually via the Zoom video conferencing platform and live-streamed on YouTube, had questions and concerns about the hybrid model Riverhead is planning to use for reopening in September.

There are still many unknowns, officials acknowledge. The district has launched its second family re-entry survey, which it will use to continue to refine its plan, Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said. Virtual community meetings will be held next week for each school building in the district, to discuss the plan and get more input from parents, she said. Arrangements for those meetings will be announced in the coming days.

The district, like all school districts in the state is facing the increasingly likely possibility that it will be dealing with a mid-year cut in state aid — something Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in April would be unavoidable without an infusion of meaningful federal aid to state and local governments, which have seen revenues from sales and other taxes evaporate as a result of the COVID crisis.

The school board voted to put unspent funds from 2019-2020 in reserves to have savings to draw on if the mid-year cuts to state aid become a reality. Tona and Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said the district will not have a final number on the amount of unspent funds until the town’s external auditor provides financial statements for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The unspent funds include monies allocated in last year’s budget for fuel, staff overtime and substitute teachers, for example, Schneider said.

Correction: This article has been amended to correct an error in the title of Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider’s title.

We need your help.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

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.