The Riverhead school board on Oct. 13 at its first in-person meeting after the pandemic struck last year. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead Board of Education is set to hire a new superintendent of schools at a special meeting tonight at the high school.

The appointment is the only item on the agenda of tonight’s special meeting. Neither the agenda nor an announcement of the upcoming appointment at tonight’s meeting discloses the identity of the new superintendent.

Board president Laurie Downs announced on the district website two weeks ago that the school board had commenced contract negotiations with “a candidate identified through the search process.” The board in November hired a search firm to assist it in finding a new superintendent.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christine Tona has been serving as interim superintendent since the beginning of the current school year, following the June 30 resignation of then-superintendent Aurelia Henriquez.

Tona was a candidate for the permanent superintendent position, but did not get the job, according to district employees who said Tona informed her staff on April 15 she was not the successful candidate. Tona retained her assistant superintendent position and has worked as interim superintendent without additional compensation.

In a separation agreement with Henriquez, citing “certain irreconcilable differences,” the school board agreed to pay the former superintendent her base salary for 2020-2021 and cover its share (80%) of the cost of her health insurance through June 30.

The agreement called for the district to pay Henriquez half of her $224,000 base salary for 2020-2021, with the other half payable in monthly installments, beginning at the end of January and continuing through the end of June. However, the district’s monthly payments from January through June would be reduced by any amount Henriquez earned through employment in any capacity during that time period. The agreement required the former superintendent to “make reasonable efforts to secure subsequent employment in education” and to submit proof of such efforts upon request.

Henriquez was hired by Hempstead public schools in February as acting assistant superintendent for K-12 curriculum and instruction, at a rate of $700 per day, from Feb. 16 through June 30, according to meeting minutes of the Hempstead Board of Education.

Last week, Henriquez was appointed to a permanent post as superintendent of the Port Chester-Rye school district in Westchester County, effective July 1.

New superintendent’s arrival follows tumultuous time in district

The new superintendent will take the helm following a particularly tumultuous time in the Riverhead school district, which has seen its share of upheaval over the years, including scandals and controversies involving school administrators.

District voters last February rejected an $88 million capital construction bond that would have added instructional space and upgraded infrastructure to accommodate the district’s population growth. Voters also rejected in the same vote an $8.8 million bond for athletic facility improvements.

The growth in student enrollment was itself a source of controversy among district residents, some of whom blamed “overcrowded” and “illegal” housing in Riverhead for the enrollment boom. Citing the growing number of English Language Learners in the district and the growth in the number of Latino or Hispanic students enrolled in the district some residents questioned whether students actually live in the district, criticizing district officials for a perceived failure to verify residency, and some people complained about district residents they believed to be in the United States without documentation.

In March, the coronavirus pandemic struck in New York and schools were abruptly shut down, leaving officials scrambling to develop plans for remote education.

In June, district voters — during a first-ever, all-mail election — rejected a proposed $147 million budget for 2020-2021, making Riverhead one of just 11 districts statewide to vote down a budget.

Later that month, the school superintendent abruptly resigned and the school board in a 4-3 vote appointed Tona to serve as interim superintendent.

In an in-person re-vote in late July, district voters rejected the same budget a second time, forcing the district into a contingency budget and sparking debates over how to spend the contingency budget funds — especially controversial was the board’s initial decision to cut sports and extra-curricular programs.

In August, RiverheadLOCAL reported that the former superintendent had filed police reports a week before she resigned, alleging she received three notes containing racial and ethic slurs and warning her to “resign or you will suffer.”

Henriquez found one note on the windshield of her car outside her home in Patchogue, accompanied by the head and arm of a brown-skinned doll, according to a Suffolk County Police Department incident report obtained by RiverheadLOCAL through a Freedom of Information Law request. Two other notes arrived by U.S. Mail at her office in Riverhead, according to police reports.

In the months that followed her appointment as interim, Tona led the district through its work to cope with the coronavirus outbreak, establish remote and hybrid learning plans for the districts and develop a budget for 2021-2022. As the budget development process was nearing completion,the district learned last month it would see a $14 million boost in state education aid. Tona, Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider and the school board worked to revise the proposed budget to allocate the new revenue to restore positions and programs cut last year and expand other programs long advocated by district educators.

The budget will be the subject of a public hearing May 11 and a public vote on May 18.

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