State rejects immediate stop on school closing

Forest Park Elementary School is one of the Forest Park Elementary School is one of the elementary schools in the Half Hollow Hills school district. (Jan. 25, 2012) Photo Credit: Alessandra Malito

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The state Department of Education has declined to put an immediate halt on the Half Hollow Hills school district's decision to close Forest Park Elementary School at the end of the school year.

Fifty-eight district residents filed a petition last month to state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr., seeking a stay of the school board's decision to close the Dix Hills elementary school.

The petition also challenged the board's reasons for its decision and the manner in which it was made, saying deliberations were not done openly.

The school board voted Oct. 28 to close the Forest Park and Chestnut Hill elementary schools, both of which serve kindergarten through fifth grade, because of declining enrollment. The district and school board, in response to the residents' petition, had requested that the stay be denied and the petition dismissed.

"We are not celebrating nor feeling vindicated by the commissioner's decision," James Ptucha, the board's president, said Thursday in a text message. "It's an unfortunate situation and we have been and remain confident in the eventual outcome."

King, in the decision issued Wednesday, dealt only with the residents' request for a stay. Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said the commissioner next will consider the substance of the appeal and the district's request for a dismissal, and then give his overall decision.

"We look forward to a determination by the commissioner of the petition on its merits," said Howard Breslow, one of the petitioners, who has two grandchildren who attend Forest Park.

A petition isn't ready for review by the commissioner's legal staff until all of the papers in the case have been filed, and a file is not complete until about eight weeks after the initial petition is filed. Once the file is complete, the commissioner tries to issue a decision within six to eight months, according to the Education Department website.

The school board, at a special meeting Dec. 2, approved a map that shows the redistribution of students to the district's remaining five elementary schools.

Total Half Hollow Hills elementary enrollment fell about 25 percent from 4,614 in 2007-08 to 3,475 this year. Currently there are 932 students in the Forest Park and Chestnut Hill schools.

Projections call for the number of elementary students districtwide to drop to 2,774 by the 2017-18 school year, according to district records.

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