Pictured Above: At Phillips Avenue Elementary School on Tuesday.

The Riverhead Central School District’s 2020-2021 budget narrowly failed for a second time on Tuesday, and the district will now be required by state law to operate under a contingency budget this coming year.

In total, 2,108 voters cast “no” votes and 2,049 voters cast “yes” votes, a squeaker of a victory for opponents of school spending, who turned down the budget with 50.7 percent of the vote — just 59 ballots.

Voter turnout of 4,157 was just over two-thirds of the turnout in the initial June 9 vote, which was held by mail due to the pandemic and saw a record 6,020 votes cast. In that vote, 52.7 percent voted ‘no’ on the 2020-2021 million budget.

The district had proposed a budget totaling $147.1 million. The contingency budget that will instead be adopted shaves $2.3 million from programming, totalling $144.8 million. The contingency budget cancels the district’s entire athletics and music programs, student clubs, elementary school literacy programs and some high school elective and science programs from next year’s budget.     

The school district has been plagued by controversy in the past year. It’s the largest school district on the East End, educating nearly 5,600 students in eight separate schools, with students coming from as far as Jamesport, Wading River and Flanders to be educated by the system.

Riverhead, which is facing an unprecedented increase in enrollment, had put up two construction bonds totaling $95 million earlier this year to expand classroom space for the burgeoning student population, but the bonds failed spectacularly, with 74 percent of voters casting ‘no’ votes, in early February.

Former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Aurelia Henriquez, who helmed the district for the past three years, submitted her resignation June 29, “based upon certain irreconcilable differences and in the best interests of her family,” according to a press release issued by the Riverhead School Board.

Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christine Tona is now serving as Acting Superintendent

“Our community has made its collective voices heard. While we are disappointed in the failure of our budget, mostly for our students and staff, we will continue to explore ways in which we can continue offering our students opportunities to succeed in a safe and healthy school environment,” said Ms. Tona after the results here announced Tuesday night.

The budget failure comes at a time when much is still unknown about whether the Covid-19 pandemic will provide a cost savings or more costs for the district, but New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been saying for months that schools should brace for up to a 20 percent cut in state aid if the federal government does not offer to help the state financially recover from its time as the first U.S. epicenter of the pandemic.

The Riverhead school district received $32.5 million in aid from New York State in the 2019-2020 school year, and the district anticipated receiving $32.9 million from the state in the budget it adopted in May.

The district has assembled a Re-Entry Task Force to design a structure for reopening this fall based on three scenarios: full return to campus, full remote instruction, or a hybrid of partial return and partial remote instruction. A decision is expected in August, and the district is seeking parent feedback here.

The district has not yet calculated last year’s full cost savings from the school shutdown in mid-March due to the pandemic.

“Our books will be examined and audited this summer and the Board of Education will be presented with the results of that audit in early fall. The exact figures will be known at that time,” according to a statement from the district accompanying the budget re-vote. “The district has long stated that any money left over from the 2019-2020 budget will be put into reserves and used as a revenue source should the projected cuts to State Aid become a reality. We have been told that we should expect our State Aid to be reduced by as much as 20 percent. Our reserves will help make up that gap.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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