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After word that the Riverhead Central School District has received a $14 million hike in state aid, the board of education has decided to propose an operating budget for 2021-2022 that will not increase property taxes and at the same time fund programs that were cut in the contingency budget last year, as well as additional expenditures officials say are needed to improve education districtwide.

The restored items include all athletics, extracurricular activities and music programs as well as some administrative positions that were eliminated, including the high school assistant principal, and the assistant PPS director, and some maintenance and custodial positions across the district, Acting Superintendent Christine Tona said at last night’s special school board meeting.

Next Tuesday the board of education will need to adopt a proposed budget, so Tona asked the board to give her and Schneider direction at last night’s special meeting so they can prepare documents for next week’s meeting in keeping with the board’s wishes.

Tona recommended a proposed $159 million budget, which would come with a 0% tax increase. The superintendent’s recommendation includes 28 new teachers, including two guidance counselors, four psychologists and four social workers, as well as several new administrators.

“Due to this increase in state aid, our students no longer have to be denied the programs and services that students in other school districts have had for years because of the unfair advantage those districts had in the state aid formula,” Tona said.

Tona thanked Assemblyman Fred Thiele, Sen. Anthony Palumbo and Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio for working together to boost state aid to Riverhead.

The legislators assured Tona and Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider that there will be continued improvements in the foundation aid formula, which was reduced in the wake of the 2008 economic crash and was never restored. Schneider said the district is confident the increased state aid number is “solid” for future years and the district may see future increases, but he declined to speculate on what that might look like.

The district is looking at using the additional state funding to add an additional language offering — possibly American Sign Language or Mandarin Chinese — and to expand art, business and health education programs. The district would also add staff to support students’s social and emotional needs, such as guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers.

Tona suggested adding two deans of students, one at the high school and one at the middle school to support discipline, restorative practices and positive behavior interventions. These administrators
would “free our principals and assistant principals up so that they can better engage in academic development.”

She also suggested adding a director of instructional technology. an “administrative certificated person that could bridge the gap between data and instruction, support our teachers with professional development, promote best practices.”

Board president Laurie Downs asked if the cafeteria equipment sought by Phillips Avenue School could be purchased by the district without tapping into the cafeanteria reserve fund, which requires a separate ballot proposition that the board previously decided to forego. Schneider told her that the district could certainly do that if the board directs it.

Member Christopher Dorr said he does not support adding new administrative positions. “After speaking with a number of residents, I would like to see no new administrative positions. I believe our residents have said we have enough administration and they will not want to see any new positions added. The dean of students I think is being handled by the APs [assistant principals]right now. And I think that can continue,” Dorr said.

Downs and board members Matthew Wallace and Brian Connelly agreed with Dorr. Connelly went a step further and said he would not support restoring the assistant principal and assistant director of pupil personnel services cut in the contingency budget because he’d rather see the money spent on more school psychologists and guidance counselors.

Downs said she remains fearful that the increased state aid will be taken away in the future, “and we’re going to be left with a mess.” Downs said over the years she’s seen “promises broken” about additional aid.

Tona said without the increase in state aid “we would be sitting here tonight talking about how to close a $5 million gap, which is very, very difficult.” In the future the district may need to prioritize program expenditures again and it may indeed need to “excess” staff, Tona said, “but we’ll deal with that when that time comes.” Right now, the district has the opportunity to provide the students what they need right now, she said.

In addition to the $14 million state aid boost, the district will receive $18 million in federal relief funds over the next three years. That is not part of the general fund budget and proposals for spending the federal funds are not yet finalized because the allocations are not yet finalized, Tona said.

“We don’t have all the specific parameters on how that’s going to be allocated yet. But we expect that in the next couple of weeks,” Tona said.

“We’re looking to address learning loss. And we know that our students have suffered the past year and many of them are going to need additional supports. We also want to be able to enrich students that need enrichment,” she said.

Tona said the initiatives being discussed include:

elementary specialists or master teachers to provide literacy and math support in kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms;
an alternative high school;
world language instruction at the elementary schools
additional technology for students
reimplementation, of a nine-period day at the middle school in high school

The school board will vote on a proposed meeting next week at its April 20 regular meeting. A public hearing will be held on the proposed budget on May 11 at 7 p.m.

The budget vote and an election for two trustee seats will take place on May 18.

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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.