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A Central School District Divided 

Brandon Weiss, the parent of two boys attending Chestnut Hill Elementary School, rallied that the largest, most central of the district’s seven elementary schools stay open next year at Monday’s school board meeting.

Although there was no special red tape marking which side of the auditorium Chestnut Hill and Signal Hill parents should sit, there might as well have been. A divided audience filled more than 200 seats in the Candlewood Middle School auditorium to rally Half Hollow Hills’ Board of Education members to keep their children’s elementary school open, following an announcement that the district will close at least two elementary schools in the 2014-2015 school year.

At Monday’s public forum, residents came out with prepared speeches and talking points for the board’s consideration following the Sept. 26 unveiling of findings from the Facilities Steering Committee, a special task force formed to investigate impacts of declining enrollment.

The 28-member committee, comprised of parents and residential stakeholders, told board members and Superintendent Kelly Fallon that it would be in the district’s best interest to close either Signal Hill or Chestnut Hill, and either Vanderbilt or Forest Park elementary schools, in light of declining enrollment over five years and budget cuts.

Trustees, district administrators and parents strongly agreed that the board map out and analyze – from an objective, fiscally responsible standpoint – how district lines would be redrawn when schools close next year and how kids would be impacted.

The issue would also need to be looked at from a safety and transportation standpoint, as parents were concerned over excessively long bus routes and child safety in that vein.

Despite advice from Douglas Elliman Vice President Mark Murphy that leasing is not an option for a closed school, Fallon said on Monday that to date, she has met with five different parties, company representatives, who have expressed interest in potentially leasing a vacant school building.

Parents of students attending Signal Hill, the elementary school adjacent to High School West, urged the board to proceed with caution before shutting the building’s doors to students. Signal Hill advocates, including Suzanne Barone, a mother of four young children, said an empty building will attract deviant behavior from outsiders and potentially, students at High School West.

Barone, along with several other parents, said she tried to form her opinion as objectively as possible, and said a closed building that close to High School West would inevitably draw acts of vandalism, graffiti, drinking and even sexual activity.

“Closing it will compromise the safety of children in Half Hollow Hills… It will give High School West students access to bad activity and closing Signal Hill will make our students less safe,” Barone said.

However, proponents of keeping Chestnut Hill open said the building is both central, allowing a 360-degree feeding pattern, and robust, boasting the largest student capacity of the district’s seven elementary schools.

Larry Shulman, a parent of Chestnut Hill students, said that while a complete rezoning would be wise, Chestnut Hill as a facility offers the best refuge for a large influx of students.

“It can hold the largest amount of students, it creates flexibility and cost efficiency, you can maintain class sizes without worrying about increasing class sizes; and it has accessibility and centralization. A repurposed Signal Hill gives us a lot of options, [including] more space for administrators… Chestnut Hill has almost no repurposing benefit,” Shulman said.

The board, prior to the public forum, held a work session where they established what additional information they would need going forward before making any decisions on building closures. Board members said they would look at building infrastructure, map out how district lines would be impacted in all closure scenarios, and explore leasability options.

Board members said they will look into when they can hold a second work session to discuss all relevant issues before their next regularly scheduled board meeting on Oct. 28.

Herbert Agin, CEO of Lake Success-based Colliers International LI Inc. and resident of Port Washington, said that school districts never make out with the savings they anticipate in closing a school. Agin, principal of the global commercial real estate firm, said there are costs associated with closing a facility, such as security and maintenance expenses, that are often overlooked during budget season.

“No school district that has gone this route [comes out with] the dollars you thought you’d save,” Agin said. “There is no real estate market for these markets. None of them are viable for lease… It might be smarter not to close anything and go in a different direction.”

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