Pictured Above: Riverhead’s Pulaski Street School is in need of a serious expansion.
After a month-and-a-half of contentious public meetings over a hefty proposed construction project, the Riverhead School Board has settled on a plan for a February bond vote with two propositions.
The first proposition, for $85.9 million, would include a $12 million expansion of Pulaski Street School, which is currently operating at 114 percent capacity, 24 additional high school classrooms, a new Pupil Personnel Services building and space reconfiguration at Phillips Avenue and Roanoke Avenue elementary schools.
The second proposition, which could only be approved if the first proposition is approved, includes $8.8 million in upgrades and reconfigurations of the district’s athletic fields between the Pulaski Street School and the Riverhead High School on Harrison Avenue.
School board members unveiled the proposal in a public informational meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5.
The school’s deputy superintendent, Sam Schneider, said at the meeting that Proposition 1 would cost an average taxpayer, whose house is assessed at $43,500, $195 per year, while Proposition 2 would cost the same homeowner an additional $36 per year.
The school originally proposed a $100 million construction bond in mid-September, after considering a potential acquisition of the former Mercy-McGann High School on Roanoke Avenue. The Mercy-McGann project would have cost the district $126 million.
After public dismay at the $100 million bond, the district pared its proposal back to $73.5 million in mid-October, but that renovation would have hinged on having both Pulaski Street School and the Middle School educate fifth through eighth grade students to lessen the overcrowding burden at Pulaski. Currently, fifth and sixth grade students are educated at the Pulaski Street School and seventh and eighth graders are educated at the Middle School.
The Middle School is currently running at just 70 percent capacity, although some parents of Middle School students said at the Nov. 5 meeting that they don’t understand why some teachers there don’t have their own classrooms and there are 85 kids using the gym there at any given time.
The 5th through 8th grade two-building proposal met with much derision from parents, said School Board President Greg Meyer at the Nov. 5 meeting. He added that the district has since changed its plan from merging the student populations to keeping the grade levels where they are and expanding the Pulaski Street School, with a 10-classroom wing with a new gymnasium on the east side of the building, where there are currently portable buildings.
“We’re in a world of trouble” at Pulaski, said Mr. Meyer of the current student overcrowding there.
Mr. Meyer said the urgency of this construction project came to light after a projected enrollment study was conducted by Western Suffolk BOCES in June of this year. Many parents and community members at the Nov. 5 meeting questioned whether those numbers can be trusted, since they don’t take into account future housing development projects that could result in more kids attending the school.
In particular, they raised concerns that the Riverside revitalization effort, in Southampton township just south of downtown Riverhead, but still within the boundaries of the school district, has only just begun and there’s no way of knowing at this point what effect housing there would have on school enrollment.
The BOCES study could only use data based on development projects that have already been submitted for planning review, he said, adding that the New York State Education Department will only give the district funding for construction that is built based on BOCES projected enrollment figures.
Currently, Mr. Meyer said that 19 percent of the student body is from Southampton township.
Riverhead School District Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez added that the enrollment projections are based on students who are already in lower grades moving up through the district’s buildings, and added that, in other districts, major population increase bubbles don’t continue over time.
In past meetings, parents and community members had raised complaints about population growth in Riverhead, much of it Latino, with some saying the burgeoning school population was due to overcrowded housing.
Riverhead Town Supervisor-Elect Yvette Aguiar, a Republican, campaigned on the issue of overcrowded housing, blaming incumbent Democratic Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith’s administration’s code enforcement policies for necessitating the school’s expansion.
Ms. Aguiar ousted Ms. Jens-Smith on Election Night, as parents were listening to the final bond presentation, with 54.24 percent of the vote.
The new construction proposal has removed several major items that were in the original proposal, including a new 20,000-square-foot administration building, a field house with an indoor turf field and track and consolidating the district’s pre-K classes at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside. It also halves the amount of money to be spent on long-overdue facilities upgrades like repairing roofs, replacing boilers and updating bathrooms throughout the district.
The new proposal also reconfigures the district’s Pupil Personnel Services, which are currently housed in portable buildings just south of the main entrance to the high school. Those buildings would be torn down to make way for a new, two-story, 24-classroom wing of the high school and a new Pupil Personnel Services building would be constructed behind the aging administration office, which is also comprised of portable buildings that have been there since 1972.
Mr. Meyer said that, even though the new administration building was removed from the construction plan, the condition of that building would need to be addressed, and the school board is considering finding a downtown storefront to house the administration offices.
“We’re going to have to deal with it soon,” he said of the administration building.
Former School Board President and teacher Ann Cotten-Degrasse pointed out that, many times over the years, the community has opposed and voters have turned down necessary improvements to the district’s facilities, including the administration building.
The initial proposal didn’t include many renovations at the district’s four elementary schools, in part because the BOCES study showed that they were currently operating under capacity. But many parents of elementary school students told the board throughout the public meeting process that they believed there were overcrowding issues in the elementary schools too.
The latest proposal includes removing modular classrooms and finding permanent classroom space at Phillips Avenue School and reconfiguring two rooms at Roanoke Avenue to serve as classrooms.
Mr. Meyer said the school plans to hold more informational sessions before a February bond vote. While some community members had raised concerns that the bond would be held in February, when many retirees on fixed incomes have left town for the winter, Mr. Meyer said delaying the bond vote until May would delay construction a whole year, because the construction schedule hinges on doing site work in the summer, when students are not at the school.
He added that the influx in students that precipitated the urgency of the construction is expected requires the buildings to be ready by the fall of 2023, and if the bond vote weren’t held until May, the buildings wouldn’t be ready until the fall of 2024.