School Bond Worries Taxpayers

Independent/Courtesy Riverhead Central School District

The good news is that the Riverhead Central School District will likely get a $2-million boost in state aid this year.

The bad news is a much-needed expansion is going to cost nearly $100 million and town property owners seem poised to vote down a proposed bond.

No one doubts the school campus has been neglected and classrooms are filled beyond capacity. District officials say the high price tag can be attributed to a faulty formula that seems to penalize Riverhead and a handful of other school districts on Long Island that get less than their fair share of state aid.

The real underbelly of the matter, though, is the feeling among some residents that undocumented workers have flooded the district, swelling the student population and forcing the district to expand beyond its needs.

Yvette Aguiar, Riverhead’s town supervisor, was swept into office in November after publicly questioning the town’s code enforcement efforts.

Her predecessor, Laura Jens-Smith, pointed out that Riverhead has the most affordable home prices in the area and thus attracts young couples likely to have children.

Smith attended a rally to support the upcoming bond last week and praised the district for being inclusionary.

School Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez hosted the rally on January 18 to “get our voices heard at the state level.”

“The truth is that our district is in dire need of funding to help us address the growing needs of students,” Henriquez said. Meanwhile, the district is clearly worried about the fate of the bond vote on February 25.

In fact, the district’s board of education has scheduled several additional community information meetings regarding the vote including one Saturday, February 1, Riverhead High School, at 9 AM; Tuesday, February 4, Pulaski Street Elementary School at 6:30 PM, and Thursday, February 13, Riverhead High School, at 7 PM.

“We have scheduled these additional meetings to ensure that all community residents have several opportunities to learn the facts about the upcoming bond vote,” said board president Greg Meyer. “This is a very important time for the future of our school district, and we want everyone to be informed voters.”

The main source of state funding for public schools comes from what is called “Foundation Aid,” which was created following a 2006 state court decision in the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity vs. State of New York.

“Many Long Island school districts are seen as wealthy, despite the changing demographics in Suffolk County. Riverhead is a district that continues to experience an increasing population, an increase in the numbers of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunch and an increase in the numbers of students with high needs,” Henriquez said. “The amount of aid that Riverhead has traditionally received is no longer enough.”

The superintendent estimates the proper amount of aide due Riverhead is about $48 million. Riverhead’s $30.75 million is 3.71 percent more than last year’s state aid but not nearly enough.

The state legislature has approved a plan for slightly more than $3 billion in aid to public school districts on Long Island, an increase of $86.4 million over last year’s aid, or 2.9 percent.

New Suffolk, Sagaponack, and Wainscott districts are not included because they are districts with fewer than eight teachers and receive state aid through a different funding stream. This database was posted on April 1, 2019.

Hampton Bays received a 3.29-percent increase to $6.25 million. Southampton, contiguous to Riverhead received less than one percent increase to $2.48 million. Nearby Tuckahoe, however is getting nearly five percent less to just over $1 million.

East End schools that fared well included Southold, up 6.7 percent to $1.92 million, and East Hampton, up 4.23 percent. Most local school districts were given a boast of one to six percent over last year’s numbers.

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