The Riverhead Board of Education approved a $192 million budget for the next school year at its meeting last week, asking district voters to approve funding increases across the board for public schools and a 1% bump in the tax levy.
The budget reflects a 13% spending increase — $20 million — over the current year’s adopted budget, according to budget documents provided by the district. Nearly half of the increase — $9 million —would cover an increase in teaching expenses.
The proposal will be put up for a district-wide vote on May 16.
The Riverhead Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at its meeting May 9.
The budget is balanced and anticipates an $11.7 million increase in revenues from the school district’s share of state foundation aid, which Gov. Kathy Hochul promised would be fully funded this year. The numbers used by district administration are still projections, since the state budget has not been yet been finalized due to disagreements on housing and criminal justice policy, according to the New York Times. The state constitution imposes an April 1 deadline for the state budget’s adoption.
The district’s proposed budget would use $14 million of the district’s reserves and fund balance to cover 2023-2024 expenditures — a $9.4 million increase over their use in the current year’s adopted budget.
The 1% tax levy increase for district property owners would generate an additional $1.02 million for the district.
The tax levy increase requires an estimated tax rate increase of $1.13 per $1,000 of taxable value for homes in Riverhead Town — from $112.377 per thousand this year to $113.507 per thousand next year. Properties in the Southampton Town hamlets of Riverside, Flanders and Northampton would see a 13-cent increase per $1,000 of taxable value — from $12.852 per thousand to $12.982 per thousand. These numbers were calculated by RiverheadLOCAL using 2022-2023 tax levy and rate-per-thousand data.
Properties in the two towns are assessed at very different levels. Last year, Riverhead’s assessment level was 10.14% of full value and Southampton’s assessment level was 79% of full value. Because different municipalities have different assessment levels — which depend in part on when the municipality last did a revaluation — the state establishes an equalization rate each year, to adjust for differences in tax assessment practices from town to town. The equalization rate for the upcoming school year has not yet been set.
The increased tax rate in 2023-2024 would mean an increase in school tax of $56.30 for the year, on an “average” home in Riverhead Town, town officials say has a $50,000 assessed value.
During the budget presentation last week, Assistant Superintendent for Business Rodney Asse misstated how the tax levy increase would impact tax bills.
“There is a tax levy increase of 1%,” he said, “… but we can project most people might see an increase of 12 cents to $1.15. And that’s what that mean to you, most taxpayers.”
He also displayed a slide, titled “What is in Our Budget,” that contained the same misrepresentation: “Tax levy contains 1% increase or between $0.12 cent to $1.15 increase on most school tax bills depending on the assessed value of the property in a town (Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.)”
Neither the board members or the superintendent questioned the statement.
Asse did not respond to emailed questions today seeking clarification of his statements during the presentation.
District administrators originally said they wanted no increase to the tax levy, which was $102.7 million in the current year.
“My goal in presenting the budget to the board was a 0% [tax levy increase] and that was something I was hoping to do,” Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said. “I do want to apologize to the Board of Education and to the community regarding that.”
Tornatore blamed the need to increase the levy on the rising costs of healthcare and the fact that the district has not yet received $6 million in payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOTS, for some Long Island Power Authority properties within the district.
Cost for employee benefits, which includes healthcare, are expected to increase 14.85% this year, from $37.36 million to $42.9 million, according to budget documents.
Tornatore and Asse have said in previous presentations that district costs have also increased due to the high rate of inflation and supply chain issues.
The administration previously presented the budget at roughly $193 million, with an $8.9 million gap between projected revenues and expenses. Since then, the budget has slightly decreased, the tax levy has increased and revenues were bolstered by a $7 million increase in the amount of reserves used.
It is unclear what the increased budget lines reflect in personnel increases, as the district’s administration did not mention it during budget presentations — and questions about this from RiverheadLOCAL have gone unanswered. Asse did not return a call or email requesting an interview about the budget today.
The budget for central administration, which includes the superintendent’s office, is slated for a 17.9% increase. The budget for Tornatore’s salary includes an increase from $242,050 to $272,500; his salary was increased from $235,000 to $250,000 last year in a contract approved by the board in July.
The budget lines for the district’s business and finance staff expenses are set to increase from $1.1 million to $1.8 million; central services (maintenance, security and custodial staff) from $10.6 million to $12.3 million, and transportation services from $7.7 million to $9.3 million.
Building administration and clerical staff and curriculum development budgets would increase from $5.06 million to $5.8 million. Budget lines for “instructional media” including school library and computer lab expenses would increase from $4 to $5 million. And the budget for pupil services, which covers expenses for nursing, school psychologists, pupil personnel services and extracurricular activities like athletics, would increase from $7.6 million to $9.37 million.
The school district’s costs towards the operation of the Riverhead Charter School are also expected to increase 12.4%, from $10.3 million to $11.6 million — representing charter school tuition based on the increased number of Riverhead Central School District students attending the school.
This is the first school budget for the district under Asse, who joined the district at the beginning of the current school year after the district split with former Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider last year.
Read about previous budget presentations here:
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the budget vote would be held on May 15. The vote is being held Tuesday, May 16.
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