School board member Chris Dorr, left, at the Riverhead High School homecoming parade last November, riding with board members Matt Wallace and Sue Koukounas.
File photo: Denise Civiletti

“I’ve never been so embarrassed to be from Riverhead or call myself a Blue Wave as I have these past couple of months. It’s disgusting.”

With those words, Riverhead Central School District Trustee Chris Dorr last night denounced the community for twice voting down the school budget and the school board for refusing to fund at least some of the district’s sports and extracurricular clubs this fall.

“I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut for a second time by the Town of Riverhead,” Dorr said last night. “When the budget failed, I felt like I was punched in the gut. Tonight, when we told all these kids that can not participate in the things that drive them, that bring them to school, is a second punch in the gut.”

School board members at last night’s meeting again engaged in a long, sometimes animated, debate about whether to move money from other budget lines or dip into the district’s fund balance to pay for some fall sports and extracurricular activities — which were not funded in the contingent budget adopted by the school board this summer.

Dorr, the father of two Riverhead High School seniors, has, at board meetings this year, expressed anger over the budget defeat and the consequent elimination of high school sports and clubs.

“Everyone but 59 people wanted this — 59 people who didn’t bother to show up,” Dorr said last night, referring to the margin of votes by which the budget failed a second time — by a vote of 2,049 yes to 2,108 no.

Dorr grew agitated as his renewed effort to fund some fall sports and clubs drew resistance from other board members, who ultimately blocked it again. With member Brian Connelly absent, the remaining board members deadlocked 3-3 on Dorr’s motion to amend the budget to spend $379,657 to fund JV and varsity fall sports and HS music and art clubs through with the district’s unassigned fund balance. Board vice president Therese Zuhoski and member Virginia Healy voted with Dorr, while president Laurie Downs and members Susan Koukounas and Matthew Wallace voted no.

The board last week voted down a similar motion by Dorr, with five people on the seven-member board agreeing to delay a decision whether to fund sports and clubs until after the district’s outside auditors produce the audited financial statements for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. The audit report is expected to be delivered Sept. 16.

Last night, Dorr brought up the issue again, citing an impending deadline he said the board was unaware of last week: the publication of fall sports schedules by Section XI, the Suffolk County section of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, which oversees public school sports programs.

“We asked Section XI to hold off on printing or putting out their schedules,” Dorr said. He did not explain who made that ask and on what authority. “They were going to put them [the schedules] out today,” he explained.

“If we don’t pass this tonight, Section XI will put out their schedules without Riverhead on them for the fall.”

Without sports and clubs, Dorr predicted, Riverhead is “going to see crime increase, teen pregnancy increase. Kids will have no outlet. We’ll see our dropout rate go up. Some kids only did well in classes because they had to in order to participate in these activities,” Dorr said. “Think about your own children, coming home and getting on a video game and not participating in the sports that they love.”

As Dorr pressed for the funding, Trustee Susan Koukounas, a former board president and the board’s longest-serving member, said his position “goes beyond all common sense.” She questioned how the board could “fund extracurriculars when we don’t even know if we can fund curriculars.”

School districts in New York face the prospect of mid-year cuts to state aid this year and potentially more cuts next year, due to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned the cuts could be as much as 20% unless the federal government steps up with relief for state and local governments.

“There will be black marks on kids’ college applications,” Dorr argued last night.

“This is an unprecedented year for kids in the whole country,” Koukounas replied.

“No, it’s just kids in Riverhead,” he said.

Riverhead is the only school district on Long Island to defeat a budget this year, and one of only a handful in the state.

But the coronavirus pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on education in New York State, an early epicenter of the outbreak, and across the U.S. The impact on high school sports is still unfolding, as sports deemed “high risk” — such as football — on hold indefinitely and other sports, such as field hockey, getting a delayed start later this month.

Typically contingent budgets do not include funding for sports and other extracurricular programs. Dorr has led the charge to find “extra” money in other budget lines — or use the district’s savings — to fund the programs. Last night he suggested funding high school sports and some clubs and challenging the community to raise money to pay half the cost of winter and spring sports, with the district picking up the other half.

Dorr also complained about the district’s allocation of financial resources to hire additional teachers, including a virtual teacher for special education.

“I don’t believe we should have offered a virtual option,” he said. “If we don’t have money for other things we shouldn’t be hiring more virtual teachers.”

At previous meetings, Dorr advocated cutting back the English as a New Language program and upper level foreign language courses as a means to find funding for extracurriculars.

“I’m not going to vote for anything that’s going to cut into education,” Trustee Matt Wallace said last night. He also said he would not vote for drawing funds from reserves without the audit report.

Resident Allyson Mateway took Dorr to task last night for behavior “over the last several weeks” she characterized as “unbecoming of a board trustee — talking about teen pregnancy and crime and using lots of scare tactics to vote for these sports.” She said because of Dorr’s statements lately, she has “lost faith in his ability to serve on this board of education.”

Mateway said she was “still reeling” from Dorr’s “comment about the made-up virus.” In a meeting last month, Dorr said children were going to “lose out on their senior year because of this stupid made-up virus.” He later apologized for the statement, adding he was frustrated “because we’ve had other viruses come to this country that were much more detrimental” and he let his anger get the best of him.

Mateway reminded the board that, contrary to Dorr’s statements, “There were over 2,100 people who voted against the budget so it wasn’t just 59 people. It was 59 more people than who voted yes,” she said.

Mateway said the board made a mistake by not cutting the budget before the second vote.

“It seems to me it was an arrogant decision not to make changes and expect it was going to pass,” Mateway said.

“People needed in my mind a sense of community and trust and that was not shown when the exact same budget was put up,” she 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.