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Riverhead schools' budget cuts eliminate all sports, other programs for 2020-21

There will be no competitive sports in the

There will be no competitive sports in the Riverhead district in 2020-21. Credit: John Roca

A divided Riverhead school board has cut more than $2.3 million from its budget, eliminating the entire sports program, after-school music and other activities as the district becomes the only one on Long Island operating under austerity conditions for the 2020-21 school year. 

Riverhead, a growing district of about 5,700 students, was forced to adopt a bare-bones "contingency" budget after a larger $147.1 million spending plan was rejected in two consecutive ballots. The second attempt failed by just 59 votes, 2,108 to 2,049. 

The final budget of $144.8 million essentially freezes property taxes at last year's level while also clamping specific limits on administrative spending. Taxation restrictions are set by the state's strict tax-cap law, now in its eighth year of enforcement. 

All competitive sports programs — varsity, junior varsity and middle school — are gone for the year, at a savings of more than $960,000. Also eliminated are concerts and other after-school music performances, along with most student clubs, field trips and late buses.  

Simply put, the decision for Riverhead's board Tuesday night was whether to impose savings required by state law by focusing on sports and other after-school activities, or as an alternative, to lay off instructional staff such as those responsible for remedial tutoring in English and math.

In the end, board trustees opted for the first approach, but only narrowly, by a 4-3 vote. And nobody was happy over the outcome. 

"It's been a rough week," said Laurie Downs, the board president, as the night meeting started. She voted with the majority that also included Virginia Healy, Susan Koukounas and Matthew Wallace. 

"My head is going to explode," said Therese Zuhoski, the board vice president, as voting began. She voted "no," along with trustees Brian Connelly and Christopher Dorr.

At another point, Dorr expressed anger that students might miss out on activities during the school year due to a "made-up virus." That drew a rejoinder from Gregory Wallace, a physics teacher and president of the local teachers union, who said that some faculty members had been infected with the coronavirus, and that he found Dorr's comment "incredibly offensive." 

Throughout the budget season, Riverhead officials insisted their original budget proposal was reasonable, with a spending increase of 1.87% and a tax hike of 2.21%. The plan included elimination through attrition of 10 staff positions in areas including administration, math and English instruction, and maintenance.

When Riverhead's budget failed the first time in mid-June, local officials decided to put up the same plan for a revote.

In retrospect, many community residents concluded that the district's refusal to budge a little on its request for additional dollars was a tactical error. 

"They really slapped the taxpayers in the face with that," said one resident, Susan Tocci, who was interviewed by phone Wednesday.

Money was not the only cause of tensions. A growing number of residents complain the district has not done enough to check the housing records of newly arrived families, to make sure they are legal residents. Riverhead has experienced 20% enrollment growth in the past 10 years, and the high school reportedly is operating over capacity. 

District officials said they vigorously investigate residency issues.

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