Voters to decide on Woodmere school's sale

An exterior of the Number Six School at An exterior of the Number Six School at 523 Church Ave. in Woodmere. This school was closed in 2009. Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

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Voters in the Lawrence school district will decide in a March 31 referendum if the No. 6 School in Woodmere, closed since 2009, can be sold to the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach for $8.5 million.

School board president David Sussman, noting that the district has been marketing the building, said, "Given we had to sell, this is the best offer out there."

The board of education voted in March 2009 to close the school, the district's newest and largest elementary facility, because of declining enrollment. The district has about 2,800 students.

The referendum includes a stipulation that Hebrew Academy will issue a note for an additional $2.7 million to cover cost savings the district is expected to see from services it provides to the academy's students for transportation, special education, and public health and welfare, the academy said.

Lance Hirt, board president of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, said the note guarantees that "we will maintain a very significant enrollment of District 15 [Lawrence] students for a long period of time -- enough to provide the district with savings worth more than the value of our note. If we do not provide that enrollment, we will end up paying cash to cover the savings shortfall."

He estimated that the Lawrence district spends more than $1,000 yearly for each student bused to the academy's elementary school in Long Beach, which has grades one through eight. Ninety-five percent of the 800 students at that school are from the Woodmere-Five Towns area.

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"This purchase agreement is a win-win for the Woodmere-Five Towns community and for our students," Hirt said.

Supporters said the sale would help the district stabilize property taxes, as well as boost the local economy and safeguard the neighborhood's character. They also cited the savings in future years related to transportation, special education and other costs.

Voting hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at sites designated in each election district: the No. 2 School in Inwood, Lawrence Middle School in Lawrence, Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst and Atlantic Beach Village Hall.

This is the second consecutive year that district voters have been asked to approve sale of the building, located on 6.67 acres. Voters last year overwhelmingly rejected its proposed sale for $12.5 million to Simone Healthcare Development Group, which planned to convert the 80,170-square-foot building into medical offices.

Dov Herman, 47, who lives nearby and launched an effort opposing the sale to Simone Healthcare, supports the current proposal.

"Having it here in the community is super important and allows the community continued use of the ballfields and green space," said Herman, a parent of five children ranging in age from 3 to 19.

If the referendum passes, Hirt said the academy plans to get approval from the Town of Hempstead to renovate the school. Renovations would include a new roof, new windows, state-of-the-art heating and air-conditioning systems to improve energy efficiency, and new electrical and plumbing systems to comply with current building codes, he said. The work also would make better use of classroom space and public areas.

Ultimately, the academy's elementary school students would move to the No. 6 School in about two years, Hirt said. The No. 6 School is one-third bigger and its acreage is triple that of the current location on Broadway in Long Beach.

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"The larger school and its amenities are a significant improvement over our current building in Long Beach," he said. "This will enable HALB to offer our students a more robust curriculum and better extracurricular programs."

The academy plans to sell the Long Beach property, Hirt said.

Steven Zuller, who lives in Woodmere and is vice president of the academy's board, pledged to "work hard to balance the community's wishes with our students' needs and with the Town of Hempstead's zoning requirements to preserve outdoor recreation areas at the No. 6 School. Our goal is to create a mutually acceptable plan for community use of school fields and playgrounds when not in school use."

The fate of the No. 6 School has sparked earlier controversy in the district.

After the school board voted to close it, parents of public schoolchildren in the district filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district, claiming violations of the First Amendment rights of parents and their children. They cited the school board's decision to close and sell the No. 6 School, saying Orthodox Jews on the board and in the community supported the decision, while most other residents did not.

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The courts rejected the lawsuit.

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