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Mixed Feelings At PTA Meetings 

Parents at the Chestnut Hill Elementary School PTA meeting last week question administrators and members of the board of education, demanding answers about why their children’s school will close.

Chestnut Hill Elementary Parent Teacher Association (PTA) members last week offered a platform in which they promised unity and collaboration with other parent groups in preparing for their school’s closure next year.

But moments after the PTA’s co-presidents pitched their unity-based plan to an audience of parents, discord and resistance among individual members grew apparent as they filtered out into a crowd of more than 60 who attended the Nov. 4 meeting.

The meeting was used as a question-and-answer forum. Parents demanded specific answers from district officials after the Half Hollow Hills school board announced last month that both Chestnut Hill and Forest Park elementary schools would close next year due to declining enrollment.

Tara Schiff, PTA co-president, said making the transition as seamless as possible for students will be the group’s primary goal going forward. The Chestnut Hill PTA, Schiff said, will maintain an open dialogue with other PTA councils and has plans to co-host ice cream socials, inter-school picnics and walking tours of schools that children will be transferred to so the students will be comfortable with their new classmates and surroundings before the switch occurs.

“Our mission and ultimate goal is to make this a wonderful year for our kids,” Schiff said. “Now is not the time to walk away from the PTA.”

But minutes after PTA members presented their plans for a colorful Chestnut Hill yearbook, end of the year parties and a working relationship with other parent groups, the meeting quickly went from highlighting positives, to negatives.

Twenty minutes into the PTA presentation, Board of Education President James Ptucha; Vice President Frank Grimaldi; Trustees David Kaston and Betty DeSabto were joined by Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Mary Rettaliata and Superintendent Kelly Fallon for an hour-and-a-half back-and-fourth discussion over the closure of Chestnut Hill and Forest Park.

Ivy Greenberg, treasurer of the Chestnut Hill PTA, and Brendon Weiss, a parent of two Chestnut Hill students, urged the board members to reveal which schools each member voted to close.

Ptucha said the decision to close Chestnut Hill and Forest Park Elementary Schools was unanimous and the choice was made after a 7-0 vote. Met with resistance by community members, Ptucha defended the need for a unanimous vote, and said a “split and fractured board” would have sent a negative message, and poor example, to the community.

“It was clear you were divided… There’s a lot of mistrust in the system,” Greenberg said.

Kaston added that each member weighed the guiding principles differently—from population density to student safety to geography – but still reached a common consensus.

“What was most important to me was affecting the least amount of kids,” Grimaldi added.

District officials reported the closures will save the district $3 million, half of which will be from staff reductions.

Ptucha said on Monday that the meeting with Chestnut Hill parents was much more successful than last Wednesday morning’s meeting with Forest Park parents. Board members, Ptucha said, “accomplished nothing” at their meeting with Forest Park parents.

“At Chestnut Hill, they came in like a lion and out like a lamb,” Ptucha said, adding he was grateful for the parents who respectfully opposed the board’s decision but “agreed to disagree.”

The meeting at Forest Park, Ptucha said, was one of the most difficult meetings in his tenure on the school board.

“The Forest Park people, it’s just more fresh with them still. The Chestnut Hill people have had time for it to sink in and have known for a better part of a year it would close, but for Forest Park people it was very raw and very fresh,” Ptucha said.

A major point of contention for Forest Park parents, he said, was the impact a closed school building would have on the surrounding residential neighborhood. They cited concerns over the prospect of blight and decreased property values.

A chorus of parents at the Chestnut Hill meeting also stressed the importance of keeping communities together and urged the board to exercise sensitivity when redrawing district lines, especially in the Strathmore community.

Some parents also criticized the board for waiting until after a decision was made to redraw district lines.

“We want answers so we can start rebuilding our lives,” Greenberg added.

The board of education will meet for a work session on Monday, Nov. 18 at Sunquam Elementary School. There will be no public speaking portion at that meeting. Board members hope to finalize elementary feeding patterns by redrawing district maps, as half of all elementary students will be changing schools next year, Ptucha said.

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