Herricks approves up to $35 million for settlement of 17 child sex abuse claims

Herricks approves up to $35 million for settlement of 17 child sex abuse claims
Herricks High School. (Photo courtesy of Herricks Public Schools)

The Herricks Board of Education approved payment of up to $35 million in bonds to settle 17 child sex abuse claims against the district at a meeting Thursday night.

The district has paid more than $1 million thus far to settle four of the 21 total sex abuse claims against the district.

One case against the district is still on trial, Assistant Superintendent for Business Lisa Rutkoske said. Herricks won one case in March when the district was found not negligible in the first Child Victims Act case against a Long Island school district to go to trial.

With the pending $35 million settlement of the 17 remaining claims, all cases against the district except one will be closed, Rutkoske said.

The 2019 Child Victims Act extended the statute of limitations for survivors of child sex abuse. The temporary law, which was in effect through 2021, allowed survivors more time to press criminal charges against offenders and more time to file a claim for money damages.

Prior to the act, child sex abuse survivors had between one and five years to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser, with that one- to five-year period starting once the victim turned 18.

The 21 lawsuits against Herricks were filed by former students who claimed they were abused between 1973 and 1991 by then-school psychologist Vincent Festa. In the cases that went to trial, plaintiffs alleged that the district ignored initial reports of abuse in the 1980s, thus permitting the abuse to ensue.

In the case that Herricks won, attorney Jeffrey Herman, who represented anonymous plaintiff J.G., said knowledge of Festa’s alleged abuse was so rampant that he was widely referred to in school as “Festa the Molester.” During the trial, the district conceded that Festa did sexually abuse the plaintiff, but denied that school officials permitted his actions.

Festa was arrested in 1993 after he was accused of sexually abusing six teenage boys in his Ronkonkoma neighborhood.

He was sentenced to five years of probation and required to register as a sex offender. He was later charged with a registered sex offender violation after failing to register his email addresses and service providers. He died in 2011 at 82.

The Herricks board adopted a 2024-2025 budget in April of $141,710,364 with a tax levy increase of 2.38%, which is within the state tax cap. Sinanis said the average tax levy increase over the past seven years was 1.78%.

The proposed budget-to-budget increase is 5.2% or $6,990,394.

The larger-than-usual increase is due in part to the cost of settling these CVA claims, board members said in April. Without the costs allocated toward pending claims and legal fees, the 2024-2025 budget increase would be 3.25%, which is much more comparable to other district budget-to-budget increases, Superintendent Tony Sinanis said.

The district had an original state aid projection of $27 million when the board adopted the proposed 2024-2025 budget. State aid will provide around 20% of total district revenues in the 2024-2025 budget, according to the administration.

Rutkoske said the district will receive $100,000 more in state aid under the recently approved state budget than under Gov. Kathy Hochul’s initial proposal. The assistant superintendent for business said the administration has not made changes to the budget due to the slight bump in aid.

The state Legislature adopted the 2024-2025 $237 billion state budget nearly three weeks late in April.

The budget included an additional $1.3 billion in school aid and the restoration of the foundation aid Hold Harmless policy, which ensures schools’ foundation aid does not decrease from the year before.

The budget adoption came after months of pushback from school administrators.

Many districts across North Shore Nassau County lamented the eradication of Hold Harmless, saying the change in aid and high insurance and pension costs produced tight budgets with higher tax levies. At previous meetings, Herricks board members and administration said they were pleased with their state aid.

Residents can vote on the budget on May 21.

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