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School budget rejected in Riverhead, passes in Uniondale, Valley Stream 13

Voters cast their ballot at Aquebogue Elementary School

Voters cast their ballot at Aquebogue Elementary School on Tuesday, where the Riverhead school district put its budget up for a revote. It was narrowly defeated. Credit: James Carbone

Uniondale and Valley Stream 13 school districts pushed through budgets in revotes, while Riverhead narrowly lost its bid, local officials announced.

The three districts were the only ones on Long Island that failed to win majority voter support during initial elections in mid-June. At that time, 121 district spending plans passed, mostly by lopsided majorities.

First-round voting was entirely by absentee ballot, to avoid health risks during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The second round of voting Tuesday included both on-site and mail-in voting.

As schools brace for potential reopenings, school leaders said dependable funding was more important than ever to support a combination of classroom and online instruction. Budgets are for the 2020-21 school year that began July 1.

"In a challenging time period, I'm glad our community saw the need to continue supporting public-school education," said Charmise Desire, president of Uniondale's school board. "Our students deserve it."

Christine Tona, interim superintendent in Riverhead, said that, unfortunately, budget rejection there will result in elimination of "many of our most valued programs." These will include athletics, student clubs and musical performances, as well as reductions in high school elective courses, officials have warned. 

"The administration and I will continue to work with the board of education, in collaboration with the staff, students and parents to make this year as best as it can be, given the budgetary and public health concerns that exist," Tona said.  

Under state rules, districts get only one revote. A second budget rejection automatically forces districts to freeze taxes and operate for a year on a "contingency," or austerity, budget.

Uniondale's $211,098,056 budget lifts spending 1.82% and taxes 1.98%. The budget was passed 1,143 to 555, officials said.

In Tuesday's revotes, Uniondale and Riverhead offered the same budgets as those turned down in the first round of voting. The rationale was that such spending plans were reasonable and fiscally responsible, because they kept within the state's strict tax-cap limits.

Riverhead's $147,124,895 plan would have raised spending 1.87% and taxes 2.21%. It lost 2,108-2,049.

Valley Stream 13 submitted a reduced budget in the second round, in hopes of winning greater public support. Its proposal also met cap guidelines. 

Valley Stream 13's revised $54,423,813 budget will increase spending 2.51% and taxes 1%. The district's original plan would have boosted spending 4.17%, well above Nassau County's average.

The vote was 949 to 783, according to District Clerk Mary Ann Rosamilia.

Some local officials pointed to the adverse impact of contingency budgets, in an effort to garner more voter support. Taxpayer advocates contended, on the other hand, that districts were turning a deaf ear to complaints that spending was rising too quickly, especially during an economic downturn.

Activist voters also charged, in some cases, that districts manipulated distribution of absentee ballots in attempts to swing the results. In Uniondale, for example, a voter committee at the upscale Meadowbrook Pointe adult community said its records showed 52 residents who applied on time for absentee ballots, but did not receive them. 

"We know that this budget has passed," said Susan Watins, chair of a community group called Seniors for Fair Taxation. "But our concern is that irregularities that occurred in this election will not reoccur in future elections."

A district representative said he would check on the charge and respond later.

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