Riverhead High School NJROTC cadets at Memorial Day ceremonies in May. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead High School’s NJROTC program has started the school year without any Navy-certified instructors or a department head, after its two certified instructors resigned this summer.

The program will continue as the district searches for the two full-time staff members it has budgeted for, including a senior naval science instructor, who acts as the program’s department head, Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said in an email from the district’s public relations firm in response to questions from RiverheadLOCAL. 

Navy Capt. Timothy McAllister, the previous senior naval science instructor, took a one-month unpaid leave of absence in July and resigned last month, after only one year on the job. Longtime naval science instructor Marine Gunnery Sgt. Charles “Gunny” Mahala resigned in June after 11 years in Riverhead.

The Board of Education has hired two district employees, Darien Riley and Zachary Morales, as “ROTC instructors” and as “leave replacements” for McAllister and Mahala, though neither meet the Navy’s criteria for naval science instructors.

A candidate for the position of naval science instructor must be a retired member of the Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard and have had at least 20 years of active duty service, and, generally, must be retired or approved for retirement benefits. In addition, senior naval science instructors must have at least a bachelor’s degree, and naval science instructors must have at least an associate’s degree, according to the Navy Educational and Training Command website. There are other qualifications as well, regarding physical fitness requirements. A candidate for either position must be interviewed by program personnel and certified by the NJROTC Instructor Certification Board.

Riley, a Marine Corps veteran with six years of service works as a guard in the district. He is a graduate of Riverhead’s NJROTC program, according to Tornatore. Morales is a substitute teacher in the district and has no military experience, but has acted as a substitute teacher for Mahala in his absence, Tornatore said.

Riley and Morales were both appointed by the Board of Education until Sept. 30 at annual salaries of $52,079.

“We are recommending their candidacy on a month-to-month basis in the hopes that we will find permanent candidates to serve in both positions sooner rather than later,” Tornatore said. “This is a continuous process and the goal of the district is to appoint permanent instructors.”

Tornatore said that, in the absence of a department head, Riley and Morales will work closely with the Navy commander who oversees the area’s NJROTC program and high school principal Sean O’Hara until permanent instructors are hired.

“Both instructors will work in collaboration. We continue to work with the Navy for guidance with this very atypical situation. The Navy has been exceptionally supportive,” Tornatore said.

U.S. Navy Spokesperson Mack Jamieson said in a phone interview that a school district’s NJROTC program can operate without a certified senior naval science instructor. 

“An area manager will work with the school directly to try to help them through the process and figure out what they can do,” he said.

The Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, (JROTC) is a U.S. military-sponsored program taught by retired and active military instructors that teaches student cadets military history, stresses military discipline and instills other military values. Students at high schools with JROTC programs are twice as likely to enlist in the U.S military after graduation, according to the military serving newspaper, Army Times. 

Riverhead participates in the Navy arm of the program. Riverhead’s unit has won several achievement awards over its 46-year history, according to the district’s NJROTC website. Riverhead also participates in drills and air rifle competitions. Graduating cadets in Riverhead’s unit have also received major college scholarships through the program.

At the school board’s annual reorganizational meeting July 5, a parent whose son is entering his senior year in the NJROTC program expressed concern about the status of the program this year, since Mahala left the district and she had heard McAllister was leaving as well. At that meeting, McAllister was put on leave by the board.

“I just want to share with you, I see the tremendous value in this program, and it’s a program we are committed to continuing for the students of the community,” Torantore said in response to her comments. “We are currently in the process of replacing our one member who did leave. And regarding the other member, it is a personnel matter that I can’t really discuss,” he said.

The school district posted a job notice on its website on July 22 for a naval science instructor and has also posted on the Navy’s job board for the position. The district has also posted on several online job boards for a senior naval science instructor. Postings say certified candidates interested in the jobs can contact high school principal Sean O’Hara at (631) 369-6723 or sean.ohara@g.riverhead.net.

It could be a while until the district finds certified candidates to fill the vacancies. It is unknown how many certified instructors are currently available for employment, but there are currently more than 200 openings across the country listed on the NJROTC’S website, including 27 in area four, which includes most of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the New England states.

The NJROTC Instructor Certification Board meets twice a year to certify new candidates to become naval science instructors, and met most recently last month. The next board meeting for new certifications is scheduled for March 2023.

Riverhead isn’t the only district on the East End seeking new instructors at the start of this school year. Southold High School has posted job listings for two naval science instructors on the Navy’s NJROTC instructor vacancies webpage.

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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