Hauppauge parents and residents packed the Suffolk County Legislature building Wednesday night with concerns about a dozen students -- which they called an influx -- enrolling in their school district after they moved to a nearby shelter.
More than 100 people gathered for a public forum held by Suffolk Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset) to give their thoughts and ask questions about who would bear the financial burden of new students being added to the district, and to refute claims that Hauppauge families didn't want the new students added to their schools because they come from shelters.
Kennedy began the meeting, meant to hear resident concerns and comments, by saying there are more than 1,000 homeless children and 500 homeless families in Suffolk County.
"This is in no way unique to this district," Kennedy said. Samuel Chu, county director of operations commissioner of the county Department of Labor, Licensing & Consumer Affairs, said there were about five homeless children attending Hauppauge schools before the shelter issue came up this year.
"We do care about the children, everybody cares about the children, but we also care about our own children," said Hauppauge parent Anna Niola. "We're not here to put down the homeless or anyone else."
Resident Charles Paolillo said the district should have informed parents of the new students coming to the school before it happened.
"I'm all for helping these children, these children need our help, I agree with that 100 percent," Paolillo said. "I don't think the school district handled it well."
Many residents attended a board of education meeting the previous night where they were told children coming into the shelter from out of state would not be eligible for reimbursement to the district by the state education department.
Karen Dennis, a Hauppauge resident and teacher in another district, said homeless children are needier and demand more attention than the rest of the class.
"There's nobody in this room that's not in jeopardy at one point or another of losing everything they have," Dennis said. "My concern is that we are getting an unfair burden on such a small school district."
But shelter resident and parent Zenobia Richardson said sometimes the circumstances of becoming homeless are beyond a person's control, and she feels lucky her children are attending Hauppauge schools, which she called "wonderful."
"Unfortunately, because of my circumstances I ended up in the shelter," Richardson said. "It wasn't a choice -- it had to be done to protect my family, so that our children can be protected and get the best education."
The shelter is among those opened when Suffolk County moved to consolidate smaller facilities that had been used as shelters.
Residents at the past two school board meetings have complained about the shelter, and have raised questions about the students' placement in one of the district's elementary schools.
District officials said 10 children from families living in the shelter were enrolled in Forest Brook Elementary School. None of the children were sent to the Pines or Bretton Woods elementary school.
Superintendent Patricia Sullivan-Kriss has said the decision to add the children to Forest Brook's roster was based upon enrollment in all the elementary schools, taking into account class size and the availability of support services.
Kennedy said in an interview last month that he has received calls from frustrated parents expressing concern about the new students.
At that time, he called the housing of the homeless in Suffolk a "haphazard system that we have attempted to address in multiple iterations."
Federal law mandates that homeless children can attend the public school district to which they move, or they can remain at their school of origin, with that school paying their transportation costs.
The Hauppauge district has an enrollment of 3,917 students on five campuses, including the three elementary schools.
With Jo Napolitano