RIVERHEAD, NY — A group of parents both heartbroken and furious that the Riverhead Central School District's 2020 to 2021 budget was voted down for a second time have refused to give up on their children's dreams: They've come together to find ways to provide students with the sports and electives slashed from the district's contingency budget.
Because the budget failed at the revote Tuesday by 2,108 to 2,049 — the budget failed for the first time in June — the district will continue to operate under a $144,831,131 contingency budget that represents a 0.27 percent budget-to-budget increase, which was guided by education law, the district said.
The budget includes a freeze on equipment purchases and salary increases for individually contracted staff. The athletics program ($963,978), clubs, musical performances ($186,006) and after-school buses ($317,947) have been eliminated.
Other areas slashed include computer technology ($100,000), high school electives ($151,108), the science program ($135,122), the elementary literacy program ($148,459), and auto and building maintenance ($121,839), the district said.
Heartbroken parents took to social media to sound off on their fury.
"Difficult to stomach this. Just getting rid of electives is a devastating thought. I know people seem to be focused on sports but there is so much," one woman wrote. "How can we let educational classes be removed?"
But in true Blue Waves fashion, parents and students rallied and vowed to find the funds to keep the electives, sports and programs alive.
They created a "Riverhead Strong — Saving Sports and Music" Facebook page to share ideas and strategize solutions.
Students tried valiantly to help the budget pass, too. Last Saturday, waving signs that said "Blue Waves" and "Vote Yes!" students rallied at the traffic circle, imploring residents to vote "yes."
In the end, it is the cry of the students, all agree, that has sounded the call for parents to come together.
Andrew MacGray, who organized the July 25 rally at the Riverhead traffic school, is a sophomore at Riverhead High School who participates in JV football, varsity wrestling and the cooking club. When the budget failed, he said: "I was devastated and so in disbelief. I was so sad that our community gave up on us."
"I was so sad that our community gave up on us"
He, too, has vowed to keep fighting. He's come up with fundraising ideas including a GoFundMe page, as well as plans to reach out to the BOE to explain "why we need sports, clubs and music even if we have to pay. This is not where our fight ends. It was almost a victory, but not all battles end with a win."
Virginia Scudder said all parents want what is best for their kids and the district. "Too much blame has been placed on teachers and the schools. We want to get together to raise funds, try and save programs, and show our solidarity as community members and parents amid so many crisis globally and locally. How can we turn our backs on our children today or ever?"
She added that's not an easy endeavor. "Fundraising would mean we would have to cover the cost of an entire program. But we are willing to try and I am honored to be gathered among so many that are willing to remember that our children will always be first."
Mom Cynthia Redmond told Patch she has two sons, one in middle school and one entering high school. "Like so many of their friends, they are high achieving students, are passionate about playing sports, and enjoy the many clubs and programs has to offer," she said. "To use the word 'devastated' is a serious understatement. COVID has been bad enough but at least they had the hope of something to look forward to."
Redmond acknowledged that there is work to be done. "However, this budget was fair, full of teacher concessions, and would have been a nominal increase in taxes. To vote against this budget and our children was cruel and short sighted. What you tear down cannot be easily built back up."
She added that for many kids, school is their only safe haven; sports, music, and activities may be the only motivation to go to school. "Without these activities, where will kids be?" she asked, adding that coronavirus has already led to feelings of isolation and depression, an uptick in drug and alcohol use, and some committing petty crimes.
Those attending events at school are also a boon to the local economy, she said, going to restaurants, and buying equipment and supplies locally.
"Some will say that because school isn’t opening in the traditional way, sports, music, and programs aren’t going to happen so it doesn’t matter," Redmond said. "This is also untrue. We don’t know what the year will bring and when school does open, our kids will be ready to go but now, they have nothing to go to. Coaches will go to other districts."
Ever since the budget failed, many have explored options, including moving out of the district altogether, attending private school, fundraising and even sending students to live in other districts with relatives. "None of us ever thought we would be in the position of being the only district to defeat its budget during a global pandemic. What a travesty. I am stunned that the community I love has so callously abandoned its children," she said.
Monica Pilon said her kids are very involved with the sports and music programs at Riverhead High School and middle school. The programs, she said, are essential to the education process.
"Being on a team or in a club brings together kids of all backgrounds to work together, trust each other and learn from each other. Knowing you have an after-school activity to attend makes school more enjoyable," she said.
And, said Kristi Pekar, many think of sports as a bonus or an extra, but she feels kids need sports and other programs.
Her daughter, she said, is starting her senior year and has been playing soccer since she was four; she's been on the Riverhead High School varsity soccer team since freshman year.
Sports has been an incentive to do well in school and "also taught her how to be a team player, how to honor commitment and even has taught her self discipline."
Pekar, who graduated from Riverhead High School herself in 1993, said she is "heartbroken. It's one blow after another. My eldest child went through the pandemic in his senior year and now this for my youngest."
Pekar said she is also frustrated with the board of education, the district, and the "community, for taking it out on the children."
Even minor adjustments to the budget may have made a difference to residents, who would then have felt validated, Pekar said. "Instead, they are angry and spiteful and taking it out on innocent children."
But rather than give up, she will join with other parents to find a way forward. "I will do whatever it takes to help with this endeavor between," although she is a working single mom and college student. "I will also pay — if they offer that — so she can play! This is it. This is what we've been waiting for. I stood on that field for the last three years taking pictures of all the seniors after their senior soccer game and sharing copies and prints with the parents out of love. And the thought of me not being able to take that picture of my daughter is absolutely breaking my heart!"