Opponents of selling Deer Park school say intimidation marred vote

A former school, located at 220 Washington Ave. A former school, located at 220 Washington Ave. in Deer Park, is shown on March 1, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Opponents of a Deer Park school district plan to sell a former elementary school used as a community center have filed an appeal with the New York State Department of Education, saying intimidation marred a school board election last May where voters approved the sale.

Speaking at a rally Wednesday in the auditorium of the 220 Washington Ave. building, two petitioners named in the appeal, William Holmes and Catherine Antoine, said they were ejected from a polling place by security guards while attempting to observe the vote.

"They're trying to hold us back, keep us down," Antoine said at the rally.

One developer, Engel Burman Group, of Garden City, which owns a number of assisted living and senior apartment projects across Long Island, has proposed paying the district from $5 million to $6.6 million for the Washington Avenue property. It then wants to build as many as 244 units of housing for seniors.

A number of school districts on Long Island have discussed various proposals to sell school properties or change the use of the buildings, including as senior housing.

The appeal of the Deer Park plan, filed June 30, asks the Department of Education to invalidate the election of three Board of Education trustees as well as the referendum on the sale, which voters approved 1,241 to 677. A preliminary request to the state for a stay of the election results was denied on July 4.

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District officials would not comment on the allegations of voter intimidation, but said in a statement, that it would go forward with plans to sell the former school.

"The district is moving forward as approved and planned with the process for the sale of the Washington [Avenue] building," district Superintendent Eva J. Demyen said in a statement emailed by a spokeswoman.

In Deer Park, district officials have said falling student enrollment and maintenance costs for the aging building, which has not been used as a school for about 25 years, make a sale the best option for the district as a whole.

But parents from nearby neighborhoods who have sent their children to day care or youth programs that have been held at the building since its closure as a classroom facility say its loss would be a blow.

"It's a vital resource for me," said Roderick Castillo, 38, whose 4-year-old son, Roderick Jones Castillo, has attended day care there for more than two years.While the census tract covering most of the area around the Washington Avenue building has about 1,713 children of school age, the second-highest of Deer Park's seven tracts, it has no operating schools and one town park.

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