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Will Your Child’s School Close? 

Sabrina Frazier, the mother of a child at Candlewood Middle School, says she is concerned over how school building closures would impact student programming at a Sept. 12 community presentation.

A group commissioned by the Half Hollow Hills School District to recommend at least one building closure for the 2014-2015 school year told residents last Thursday it would be in the district’s best interest to close not one but two elementary schools to save money.

Declining elementary enrollment and impending budget cuts led the 28-person Facilities Study Group and Steering Committee to recommend that the district close either Vanderbilt Elementary or Forest Park Elementary Schools and also close either Chestnut Hill or Signal Hill Elementary Schools.

Otsego, Paumanok and Sunquam Elementary Schools were taken off the table due to geographic, population and building capacity factors.

While much of the Sept. 12 presentation, held at Candlewood Middle School, focused on how the district can maximize on cost savings, parents expressed concerns over bigger class sizes, the timing of the transition with the implementation of the Common Core state standards, redistricting and the impact the closures would have on educators.

Jeff Warren, parent of a Candlewood student and a district graduate, raised concerns over increasing class sizes when the district is faced with the new implementation of the Common Core curriculum, which resulted in lower state test scores this year across New York.

“Is this the time we could be looking at dramatically raising class sizes? How many teachers will be cut? And administrators?” Warren asked. “I want [to see], on a line-item basis, how much money is being saved… If it’s given to the board, we should see it, too.”

Committee members did not comment on how class sizes would be affected after closures.

The steering committee was selected in June and is comprised of stakeholders who represent nearly every demographic group in the community; it includes residents, teachers from all 11 school buildings, business owners and others.

“We’re going to have to lose two schools,” committee member Joseph Tantillo said. “The option was not popular, but it quickly became our approach.”

The group told the more than 100 residents in attendance that the Fran Greenspan Administration Center, which houses close to 24 administrators and no students, would “not result in significant savings” and therefore will not be recommended for closure to the board.

Group facilitator Michael Keaney, a retired educator and private consultant, said the Sept. 12 presentation is a “work in progress” and may change before it is presented to the Half Hollow Hills Board of Education on Sept. 26.

Parents like Jeff Rosario, who has a student attending Vanderbilt, said he is concerned about whether the community will have a say in the board’s decision of which schools close.

“I don’t think the one board should make a vote and [we should] stand down. There should be a vote, and I think that’s the biggest thing… There should be more involvement of the community to make this decision,” Rosario said.

Looking at Vanderbilt, the committee cited low population density and close proximity to Forest Park Elementary as good reasons to close it. A con to closing was the school’s “360-degree radius” for attracting students, while the school’s closeness to Deer Park Avenue was listed as both a benefit and a drawback.

Forest Park Elementary was listed as an attractive candidate for closure because of its closeness to Vanderbilt and its ease of access to other nearby elementary schools. A disadvantage of closure includes the school’s Blue Ribbon designation, its limited alternative use, the dense population surrounding the school, and its location in the neighborhood, which makes it “difficult to protect and secure.”

Reasons to close Signal Hill ran the longest, in that it is the smallest school in terms of number of classrooms and has a light population density surrounding it. In addition, its close proximity to High School West opens to the door to possible alternate uses for the high school. Security and vandalism, as well as maintenance, were also concerns in favor of closure.

But drawbacks of closing Signal Hill also centered on the school’s closeness to High School West, including concerns over having a vacant building near a high school and the impact on emergency evacuation procedures.

Chestnut Hill was listed as an attractive candidate for closure based on its location on the Long Island Expressway Service Road, making it “easy to protect from vandalism,” and given the small population in the surrounding area. Reasons to keep Chestnut Hill open included that it is a larger-capacity school and that it is in the “geographic center” of the school district.

To arrive at their findings, the district hired Flanders, N.J.-based Applied Data Solutions (ADS) to conduct a demographic study of the Half Hollow Hills School District.

After Wayne Verderber, president of ADS, provided demographic information on all buildings in the district, it became apparent that the issue centered on elementary enrollment, the committee members said.

Committee members said that once the high schools and middle schools were taken off the table, the group split into four focus groups. The groups were asked to examine four buildings each, including the administration center, and two groups were assigned to look at the same group of buildings and compare findings.

The committee first met on June 6. Their last meeting is slated for Sept. 26, when they will present their findings to the board.

The steering committee also met with Mark Murphy, vice-president of real estate for Douglas Elliman, to explore leasing and selling options. However, Murphy informed them there is no existing market to take over an elementary building for a short-term lease.

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