Forest Park Elementary parents mount campaign to keep school open

Lori Caiazzo, center, and other concerned district residents Lori Caiazzo, center, and other concerned district residents gather in front of Forrest Park Elementary School in Dix Hills to speak with Newsday regarding the closing of the school. (Oct. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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Parents at Forest Park Elementary, one of two schools in the Half Hollow Hills district that trustees voted to close in June because of declining enrollment, are mounting a campaign to keep it open.

"We are trying to get as many people together to try to fight this to see what we can do about it," said Jennifer Brite, who has a daughter in the fourth grade. "There has to be something we can do to stop this or get some answers about why this school was chosen."

Parents said they have been calling and emailing school board and town officials since the board voted Monday night to close the Forest Park and Chestnut Hill schools, both in Dix Hills, at the end of the school year. The schools serve students in prekindergarten through fifth grade.

"Most parents in Forest Park don't feel like this is over," said Tracy Kleinberg, who has two children, in the second and fifth grades. Kleinberg is one of several vice presidents in the school's parent-teacher association; she said she was speaking as a parent and not as a PTA officer.

Board president James Ptucha said Wednesday the board considered many things when looking at which schools to close, including how to maintain an equitable distribution of students, the demographics of where students live now, and where projections show they will be living.

"We want to put schools in demographic centers of where students are coming from, but not just for tomorrow, for the next projected five years out," he said. "In the end, we wanted to affect the least amount of children tomorrow and moving forward."

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Ptucha said he has responded to residents' questions. "Every single person that has called me or written me, I have replied back with a detailed response," he said. The board president said he plans to be at the next Forest Park PTA meeting to answer questions.

The closure vote followed the recommendation of a board-appointed facilities committee, made up mostly of district residents, to close two of the district's seven elementary schools. The committee eventually focused on four campuses, proposing a choice of closing Forest Park or Vanderbilt, and Chestnut Hill or Signal Hill.

The closures are expected to save the district about $3 million next year, with most of that coming from staffing cuts. Currently there are about 80 empty classrooms in the district, which has a $228 million budget.

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Forest Park and Chestnut Hill had a total of 1,352 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in 2000-01, state records show. Even with prekindergarten classes added, the schools' combined enrollment this year dipped to 932, the district said.

Half Hollow Hills' total elementary enrollment declined from 4,614 in 2007-08 to 3,475 this year, or about 25 percent, according to district records. Projections call for the number of students to drop to 2,774 by 2017-18.

The facilities committee's Sept. 26 report, which gave the pros and cons for each school, is posted on the district's website.

One of the reasons the report supported closing Forest Park was its proximity to Vanderbilt. Reasons to keep it open included its designation, in 2011, as a "Blue Ribbon" school -- an honor given to high-performing schools -- and its limited alternative uses.

For Vanderbilt, two of the reasons supporting closure were its close proximity to Forest Park and its location on Deer Park Avenue, a state highway, which could serve as a good location for the building's alternative use. But, on the flip side, Vanderbilt's location also was a reason the committee gave for keeping it open, saying that it "lends itself to easier transportation for students that need to be re-routed to another school."

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For Chestnut Hill, the report supported closing the school because of its location on the Long Island Expressway service road, making the site a good location for another use. The report supported keeping it open because its location is "in the geographic center of the school district."

For Signal Hill, reasons supporting closure included its close proximity to Half Hollow Hills High School West, which could be beneficial for an alternative use for the high school. But its closeness to the high school also was a reason to keep it open, because the committee was concerned about having a leased or vacant facility so close to that school.

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