Supporters who took to the podium Tuesday night at a at largely supported the idea of the Christian camp running its own school for grades seven through 12, welcoming the opportunity to provide an alternative choice for their kids, and mentioning the work that "the Ranch" has done over the years as one that points to a proven track record.
But in the midst of budget season in - at a meeting where Superintendent Nancy Carney said is "absolutely the lowest budget-to-budget increase the district has ever had" - those who spoke out against the application made a point of their own: it all comes down to dollars and sense. And right now, they said, the school district doesn't have the funds.
"Mr. Hill has worked well with the district," said School Board President Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, referring to Timothy Hill's Executive Director, Thud Hill.
"But if it comes down to dollars coming out of the school district than I have to say, we are not in favor of anything that’s going to take from the 5,000 students that we currently service. And some of those being the kids at Timothy Hill."
Luckily for Hill, the ultimate fate of the charter school application doesn't rest in the hands of the school board, but rather the State Department of Education, which should hand out final approvals by June.
Timothy Hill Children's Ranch, located on Middle Road, has been open since 1980, housing teenage boys who come from troubled families. A graduate of Riverhead High School himself, Hill said at a recent meeting with the Riverhead Town Board that the reason he's applying to start the school is that over the last couple of years, his organization has been teaching some of its guests at the ranch in a homeschool-style setting, and found it has worked favorably.
The charter school would complement the ranch by keeping many of those youths in an environment they are familiar with - a smaller one, surrounded by many of the people with whom they live.
Tuesday night, he recognized that branching out as a separate entity could impact the district, though he said he would work with the district to minimize any adverse affects.
"I do not seek to hurt the Riverhead district, though I know there are going to be some financial ramifications," Hill said. "But I do wish to extend that olive branch and say I am willing and eager to work with the school board."
The cost of charter school students is calculated on a per-pupil basis, with costs borne by local school districts. Financial Administrator Sam Schneider said RCSD budgeted $1,705,828 next year for approximately 103 charter school students, equaling an average of about $16,500.
Timothy Hill's charter application proposes opening with 55 students - all boys, to start - and making its way up to no more than 245 within the first five years. Hill guessed as many as 10 districts could be impacted within the first year should the application gain approval, as the school would be the only charter high school on Long Island, according to the State Department of Education.
While not all of those students would come from RCSD, the notion that the district could be in line to lose money - while mandated pension costs are on the rise and school districts across the state are forced to comply with a two percent tax levy cap - worried teacher union president Barbara Barosa, whose ranks fell by 15 last year with .
"My opposition is not one in philosophy or theory or the educational process they could provide. Its about funding," Barosa said. "We are struggling now to provide all necessary items for students –and if in fact we lose several million more dollars, I’m sure more will have to be cut."
About a dozen spoke in favor of the charter school application Tuesday night, compared to a few who didn't favor it - not counting the Board of Education.