Riverhead school board candidates Matthew Wallace, left, and Laurie Downs speak about their candidacies during the May 10 board meeting. (Photos: Alek Lewis) Andrew Nadeau, right, was out of town but sent a video statement about why he is running for school board. (Photo: YouTube video screenshot)

The Riverhead Board of Education heard few public comments during its hearing Tuesday night on the district’s proposed $169.7 million operating budget for the upcoming school year. The budget vote and trustee election is set for next Tuesday, May 17.

The proposed budget would increase spending 6.5% over the current year’s budget but calls for just a 1% increase in the district’s tax levy, thanks to a 16.3% boost in state and foundation aid this year.

A 1% increase in the property tax levy would mean an estimated annual tax increase of about $62 (about $4.60 per month) on a home in Riverhead Town with a full market value of $400,000, using the current year’s tax equalization rate set by the state, according to school district budget documents. On a home in Riverhead Town with a full market value of $600,000, the annual school tax would increase by an estimated $93 ($6.93 per month), according to school district documents. The equalization rate is not yet set for 2022.

The equalization rate, set by the state each year, adjusts for differences in tax assessment practices from town to town. In Riverhead Town, the tax equalization rate this year is 11.8%, meaning properties are assessed at 11.8% of full market value. In Southampton Town, the current equalization rate is 100%. In Brookhaven Town the equalization rate is 0.74%.

The school district is planning to increase in course offerings and bring back a nine-period day in the middle and high schools. The budget plan funds 15 new full-time teachers at the high school, four new full-time teachers at the middle school, and a new STEM administrator.

See prior coverage: School board approves $169.7 million budget for upcoming school year; May 10 hearing set

Also on the ballot next week is a proposition to authorize the use of up to $56,000 in cafeteria capital reserve funds to purchase a walk-in refrigerator at Phillips Avenue Elementary, two warming cabinets at the high school and two milk coolers at Riley Avenue Elementary. The cafeteria capital reserve, created in 2018, is funded from surplus money generated by the cafeteria program and not taxpayer dollars. Expenditure of cafeteria capital reserve funds has no impact on the tax levy.

The only resident to comment during the hearing was Monique Parsons of Baiting Hollow, who sent in her comment online. Parsons, an unsuccessful school board candidate last year, said the board and administrators have not been transparent about the district’s fiscal management. She brought up the demotion, investigation and separation of former Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider, citing “rumors” in the community about the reasons for Schneider’s departure. The district did not explain the former deputy’s abrupt administrative reassignment or the specifics of an investigation officials initiated. Schneider subsequently resigned his position in Riverhead for a new job in the East Hampton school district.

See prior coverage: School district business official to be paid full compensation for balance of his contract term

Parsons also said the board has not been “active in cutting the fat” from the budget. “Anyone that says if you vote no for this budget then you are hurting the kids is wrong. The BOE is hurting our taxpayers. The majority of this district’s school-aged kids live four times or more below the poverty lines, and you want to raise taxes on the same people that you are claiming to help. If this budget was truly for the kids, you would configure a budget from the top down, a budget that puts core education and elective programing and sports first, not administrative salaries,” Parsons said in the statement, which was read into the record by the district clerk.

5-10-2022 Budget Hearing Presentation Updated by RiverheadLOCAL on Scribd

After the hearing, Riverhead Central Faculty Association President Gregory Wallace, during a segment of the meeting regularly set aside for comments by the union, urged the community to pass the budget.

“We’re really hoping the community will come out and support the budget,” Wallace said. “A lot of us lived through a contingency budget, which was very difficult for our students and our staff, and we are just hoping that our community will support this budget and vote yes on May 17.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Jeremy Rand, a parent of two at Phillips Avenue, said the community needs to adopt the budget. He had just come to the meeting from the Phillips Avenue Elementary School Color Run event, which he said was “a beautiful example of what Riverhead does” and made him think about how hard the administration, board and staff work for the students of the district.

“We need yes. We need to speak to people. We need people to come out and understand that we are a great community, and we just need a chance, just this chance. Put everything aside, we’re past that, all this COVID crap, all this other stuff. We have to look forward, we have to look forward to the future.”

The budget vote and election of trustees will take place May 17 at the K-4 elementary school where a child living in their home would attend. Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Trustee candidates make their pitches to the community

The three candidates for two open seats on the board made remarks during the meeting in an attempt to capture the community’s vote next Tuesday. 

Incumbents Laurie Downs and Matthew Wallace, the president and vice president of the board respectively, are running together. Andrew Nadeau, a newcomer and graduate of the district, is also running. Each of the candidates got three minutes to speak.

See prior coverage: Two incumbents, one newcomer up for election to Riverhead school board this year

Wallace, a licensed practical nurse at Northwell Family Health in Riverhead, was elected to his first term as trustee in 2019 and was elected vice president of the board this school year.

“I am proud of the school district I live in and my children graduated from and currently attend,” he said. He said he is proud of the programs it offers.

“As a current board member I am proud to say I’ve been part of the search for the superintendent and changes being made for the district,” Wallace said. “I look forward to the future opportunities for the students and staff.”

Wallace said, if re-elected, he is looking forward to working further with committees on the board, including the facilities committee, which has worked to renovate bathrooms within the buildings and upgrade the district’s security systems.

Downs, who is seeking a third term as trustee, cited as her accomplishments on the board, including increased transparency in the district by making salaries and contracts accessible. She also said she has been advocating for a new district website, which will will be launched next school year.

“I am the person who has kept promises,” Downs said. “I said I was going to go after transparency, as transparent as the law allows, and I did.”

”Three years ago, I said I wanted to bring back the ninth period, and starting next school year, we’ve got a ninth period,” Downs said.

“I have 16 years on the outside, at this podium. I’ve had six years on the board. And if that hasn’t proved I’m dedicated to this district and the children, then I don’t know what to say other than: vote for Downs and Wallace,” she said. 

Andrew Nadeau, who was out of town and not able to attend the meeting in person, submitted a video he requested to have played during the meeting. The board played the first three minutes of a four-and-a half minute video submission, which Nadeau posted to YouTube.

Nadeau opposes the proposed budget and is running on issues related to COVID-19, including opposing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations and mask mandates, both of which are currently not required in New York. In his video, Nadeau makes the false statement that COVID-19 vaccines are “gene therapy”. He also states he wants to “decentralize” the school system, which generally seeks to take power from larger government institutions and give it to local institutions.

“The system that delivered the most expensive and dystopian nonsense to our children over these past two years does not deserve an increase in funding from the hard-working citizens it abuses,” Nadeau says in his video. “Our newly-emboldened public-health education authoritarians in the schools found no issues in arbitrary health regulations onto the masses.”

During open comments, several community members made comments referencing the candidates for the Board of Education. 

Parsons urged the community to vote for Nadeau. She brought up that both Wallace and Downs voted for a district reopening plan that included mask mandates last year. She also made reference to Wallace supporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Denise Rohde, a parent of one, reiterated Parsons’ comments about Wallace and Downs, and said Nadeau was the candidate of choice for people who “want parental choice.” 

In response to a question at the Aug. 31, 2021 board of education meeting asking how board members would vote if the state mandated the COVID-19 vaccine, Wallace said “if there is a mandate, I would go ahead with it.” State health officials, pursuant to state law, not the board of education, determine whether and which vaccines are required for attendance at schools within the state.

At the same meeting, Wallace also discussed his choice as a parent. “I just vaccinated my children. I think it’s a good idea they get vaccinated,” he said. “I voted for the mask [policy] and I’m in the health field, I work in the health field, I see people who are sick.”

During the Aug. 31 meeting, Wallace, a nurse, said he saw a high school student stay in the intensive care unit for two weeks because of COVID-19. “He almost died,” he said. 

In response to the comments addressing Wallace’s view on vaccines, Wallace said his comments were taken out of context. “I said if they’re gonna be mandated, they’re gonna be mandated. Not that I’m looking for them to be mandated,” he said.

“If the state brings down a mandate, we have to follow that,” he said.  

Riverhead High School’s new assistant principal, Jon LaRochester. Photo: Alek Lewis

Board appoints new assistant principal at high school

The board also approved the appointment of Jon LaRochester as the new assistant principal of the high school, replacing William Galati, who was appointed to a new administrative position. LaRochester is the current principal of Islip High School and will start on July 1 with an annual salary of $152,942.

“I’m in year 23, 10 in school district administration, and super excited to join a phenomenal team, and a district that has a comprehensive vision for all of its students,” LaRochester said. “It’s really important coming out of COVID to involve yourself with people who are really committed and dedicated to creating opportunities and experiences.”

Correction: A photo caption that incorrectly identified Matthew Wallace as Gregory Wallace has been amended.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that the ballot proposition authorizing the use of the cafeteria capital reserve fund for cafeteria projects was for not more than $66,000. The amount is actually $56,000.

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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