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Education chief upholds 6th-grade move to Berner Middle School

Barbara Luba helps her sixth-grade social studies students

Barbara Luba helps her sixth-grade social studies students as they get to work on their computers on the first day of school at Berner Middle School in Massapequa on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017. Credit: Barry Sloan

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia on Tuesday upheld the Massapequa school district’s relocation of sixth-graders to Berner Middle School, a move that took effect in September amid rancor in the South Shore community.

Elia, in rulings related to the middle school’s reconfiguration, found that the change was educationally sound and noted that it had stemmed from the work of a 30-member task force, months of deliberation and multiple community hearings.

The commissioner’s actions bring to a close the latest chapter in a drama that has seesawed in Massapequa for months.

The plan to move 550 sixth-graders to Berner, which also has grades seven and eight, won school board approval in February 2016 and the relocation was to start in September, with the beginning of the current school year.

Superintendent Lucille Iconis had promoted the move, saying it would have educational benefits for the sixth-graders, offering them a more varied curriculum, access to stronger foreign language offerings and after-school clubs. Opponents worried about the effect of mixing younger students with older ones.

During the spring, it became a hot-button issue in the run-up to the school board election in May, and the election resulted in a shift of power on the five-member board.

In July, the trustees in a 3-2 vote reversed the decision to move the sixth grade to the middle school.

At that point, the district already had hired and reassigned teachers and staff, approved programs for students at Berner, reconfigured classrooms and revised busload levels. When the school year ended in June, the moving-up of fifth-graders to the middle school had been celebrated at the district’s six elementary schools.

After the July vote, parents in favor of the relocation immediately petitioned Elia. In August, the commissioner issued a stay, barring the reversal of the sixth grade’s relocation, pending her further review.

Next, the Massapequa school board sued Elia, seeking a temporary restraining order. But a state Supreme Court justice in Albany County declined to overrule the commissioner.

Ultimately, the sixth-graders started school at Berner on Sept. 6 along with the seventh- and eighth-graders.

Elia, in one of her decisions Tuesday, wrote, “There is no explanation as to why the board abandoned all of the benefits it previously asserted would be realized from the sixth- through eighth-grade middle school configuration.”

She added that the “unexplained reversal of a school reorganization which it had been implementing for the prior 17 months, with less than two months before school started in September, is arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable and contrary to sound educational policy.”

Tim Taylor, president of the school board, on Tuesday denounced Elia’s decision as inappropriately impinging on the district’s authority.

“All school boards should be totally concerned with this decision,” he said, adding that the board must decide whether to continue with legal action. “Why bother having school boards if the commissioner could, at her leisure, overturn what a board had done?”

Taylor said while he’s heard positive reports about the change, “I still would love to bring them [sixth-graders] back.”

Amy Kaufmann, a Massapequa resident who supported the sixth-grade move and was among those petitioning Elia, said, “It’s a good day for Massapequa, and also it’s behind us.”

She said she has heard great feedback from parents and students about the sixth-graders’ move to Berner.

“That’s what made this all worth it. These children,” Kaufmann said. “I’m just happy that these kids get to continue and the next year gets to continue.”

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