File photo: Denise Civiletti

There was no stash of unspent funds left over when the books were closed on the 2019-2020 school year in Riverhead.

That was the message from the school board’s audit committee, delivered to the full board and the public at last night’s school board meeting.

Trustee Chris Dorr, who last night continued his push to fund some athletics and extracurricular programs this fall despite the district’s contingency budget, asked whether there was “no additional money from our shutdown.”

The district was required to maintain its established payroll during the shutdown because the governor ordered schools not to lay anyone off during the quarantine period.

In addition, any savings that did result from the shutdown were spent on “COVID-related pay to members of the CSEA who came into work during the period of the quarantine,” Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider told Dorr.

The school board on March 24 unanimously approved the payment of double-time hourly wages for CSEA members and exempt confidential clerical employees who were requested to work by their supervisor. The double-time pay was effective March 17.

The district paid $298,668.70 in additional salaries, Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said today. That does not include the payroll taxes and benefits that also have to be paid, she said.

Dorr sought to use reserve funds or the unassigned fund balance to cover fall varsity sports, clubs and music performances, but he found no support except from Trustee Therese Zuhoski.

Over their objection the board voted 5-2 to set aside just under $4 million in excess fund balance in reserve accounts for employee benefit accrued liability, workers compensation, retirement contribution and NYSTRS retirement contribution.

“I still don’t understand, with all this extra money, why we can’t find $900,000 to have our students play athletics, perform in music and the arts,” Dorr said. “That would still roughly leave 3 million to be put into these reserve funds.”

“It’s not extra money,” Trustee Matthew Wallace told Dorr. “It’s money that we use, the reserves were used last year,” he said.

Dorr said he believes the district “could get by” with $3 million in those reserve accounts rather than the $3.95 million set aside by the board resolution last night.

The board put approximately the same roughy $4 million amount into those reserve funds last year, Schneider said.

The reserve funds in question are used to pay the district’s obligations for various personnel-related costs: retirement contributions — at rates which are set by the state — accrued employee benefits — such as accrued sick and vacation pay, as required by collective bargaining agreements — and workers compensation payments.

The district draws those funds down every year, Wallace told Dorr.

The district’s unassigned fund balance in 2020-2021 will remain at 4% of the 2019-2020 budget — approximately $5.7 million.

That amount would not be sufficient to cover reductions in state aid of as much as 20% Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned would be coming if the federal government fails to provide relief to state and local governments. A relief bill has been stalled by partisan disagreements over its scope and amount.

A 20% reduction in state aid would mean a loss of $6.5 million for Riverhead.

The FY 2020-2021 enacted budget gave the State budget director authority to unilaterally withhold legislatively appropriated state aid to localities if the budget director deems the state budget unbalanced due to revenue shortfalls caused by the COVID pandemic.

The State Division of the Budget is projecting a $14.5 billion general fund revenue decline as a result of the COVID pandemic in the current fiscal year, according to the financial plan update the budget division released last month.

The State Education Department must obtain approval from the Division of the Budget prior to obligating appropriated funds, the department’s chief financial officer told the State Board of Regents at its meeting last week.

The department must submit, on a weekly basis, a list of critical payments for approval, which include statutorily required state aid payments to districts, said NYSED chief executive officer Phyllis Morris.

Budget officials have begun reducing state aid to school districts, including one on Long Island, prompting the state’s largest teacher’s union, NYSUT, and three affected school districts to sue the state in an effort to block the cuts.

So far, Riverhead has not seen any aid withheld, Interim Superintendent Christine Tona said Monday, though the state has been “slow in making payments for certain state aid categories.” It’s not known if that money will be coming or permanently withheld, she said. The district has been told the aid payments for September will not be subject to the 20% withholding, Tona 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.