Riverhead Charter School Superintendent Ray Ankrum speaking at a hearing before the Riverhead Board of Education on the charter school's proposed expansion of its high school. Photo: Alek Lewis

A proposal for the Riverhead Charter School to undergo the largest expansion in its history garnered both large praise and sharp opposition during a public hearing at the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday.

The charter school is pursuing the ability to teach grades 11-12, which would allow its students to complete all of their compulsory education at the charter. They are requesting an enrollment increase from 774 to 1244 to be implemented over the next three school years.

The Riverhead Central School District is required to hold a public hearing on a charter within its territory, although they don’t have any power over whether the charter is approved. The testimony of the crowd is recorded by the school board and relayed to the state Board of Regents, who draw on the testimony to make the decision on the expansion. 

“We are looking to build our pipeline of students organically from the ground up, so we would like for children who start in kindergarten with us to finish in 12th grade with us,” said Charter School Superintendent Ray Ankrum. “We have no desire to poach any high school students from the Riverhead Central School District.”

Established in 2001 as a K-6 school, the charter has undergone rapid expansions over the past 10 years, more than doubling its 2012 enrollment capacity of 280 students. Charter schools, although publicly funded, are individually operated by nonprofit corporations. The main campus for the charter school is located in Calverton.

“So there is no animus here in terms of what we are trying to do, we are trying to work for kids and give our parents a choice,” Ankrum said.

The word “choice” was thrown out liberally during the testimony of those parents and employees of the charter school in favor of the charter’s expansion, arguing that they should have the access to a learning environment different from the school district. 

A large crowd of parents, many Spanish speaking, came to rally in support of the charter school and filled the auditorium with applause after favorable testimony. 61% of charter school students are Hispanic or Latino, 23% are Black or African American and 13% are White, according to state data. 42% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, while 27% are English language learners.

Rosula Gurantes, who has two children in the charter school, said she supports the expansion and hopes that in the future, the charter school will have the same resources as the district.

“For most of you it may all be a question of money,” Gurantes said. “But for me, the most important thing I have is my children and my children’s education.”

Teachers from the Riverhead Central School District remained in sharp opposition to the expansion, as they have years prior. The group argued the charter school, for an entity that is funded mostly by tax dollars, does not have adequate financial oversight — it is required to have independent audits, but cannot be audited by the state comptroller’s office — and lacks accountability in the absence of democratically elected trustees. 

“Charter schools are not public schools,” for these reasons, argued Gregory Wallace, the president of the Riverhead Central Faculty Association, the local teachers union. 

He argued that the charter school does not serve all students and selectively chooses those to teach. The charter school uses a lottery system to enroll students who apply, but is not bound by law decide what students to enroll. 

He said the charter school’s methods of teaching and curriculum is less beneficial to students than a traditional public school. 

“Charters’ sustained emphasis on test scores lead to a narrowing of the curriculum and an overreliance on test preparation,” Wallace said. “Rather than engaging in meaningful play or development of advanced cognitive skills, charter schools utilize large swaths of instructional time on methods and rigid test preparation, thus neglecting art, music, science and foreign language.”

Wallace said the district’s budget is impacted by lapses in state aid, bond votes and tax revenue fluctuations, while the charter school is not. “Every dollar given to a charter school means fewer available resources for public schools,” he said, referring to the relationship between the two as “parasitic.”

The charter schools in New York are required to hire independent auditors and cannot be audited by the state comptroller’s office. The most recent three charter school audits are displayed on their website. Approximately 95% of the charter school’s total revenue is from tuition income, according to the 2021-2020 audit. The largest contributor is Riverhead, which makes up 69% of that revenue, which is $9 million, according to the district’s most recent budget proposal.

An audit determined that the charter school is “anticipating that there will be no decline in its tuition revenue and as such, it is not anticipated that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant long-term impact on the School’s financial position or operations.” 

Some people supported the charter school’s expansion because it would allow all students to finish their education in one place. 

“Look at the parents that were at Mercy High School when the diocese closed it. Those parents were devastated for their last year,” said Kathy Berezny, former longtime Riverhead Board of Education member. “A school is K to 12. Not K to 6, K to 8, K to 10, it’s K to 12.” (Editor’s note: Berezny writes a biweekly community column for RiverheadLOCAL. She is not a member of the website’s editorial team.)

“If we’re so adamant that we’re not here for charter schools, then maybe our school system should improve and be competitive, so that we can get the other students back, if that’s what you want,” Berezny said.

An online form for the hearing had 50 people against the charter school expansion, while one wrote in favor of the expansion.

One trustee, Virginia Healy, spoke up against the charter’s expansion. She respects the charter school wanting to teach up to grade 12, she said, but said the enrollment expansion is too large and presents problems of overcrowding.

The most recent expansion allowed the charter school to teach high school level classes for 9th and 10th grades. It is currently pursuing a special permit from the Riverhead Town Board to turn a vacant old schoolhouse on 3.9 acres of land on Sound Avenue into a high school. The schoolhouse would provide space for 106 students and add eight new teaching jobs — far less seats than the proposed charter expansion would add.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com