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Half Hollow Hills leaders face parents' frustration over closings

Brendon Weiss, a parent of two students in

Brendon Weiss, a parent of two students in the Half Hollow Hills School District, asks questions of school board members regarding the closing of two schools in the district during a PTA meeting at the Chestnut Hill Elementary school. (Nov. 4, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Half Hollow Hills administrators told anxious parents last night that they agonized over the decision to close two elementary schools and tried to impact as few children as possible.

"I don't expect anybody in this room to agree with us," school board president James Ptucha told a crowd of 60 parents at a PTA meeting at Chestnut Hill elementary in Dix Hills, one of two campuses selected for closure.

The other is Forest Park.

Parents told administrators they did a poor job of communicating the plan, asking them to move quickly in determining where the displaced students would be relocated.

Board members said they hoped to unveil such details as quickly as possible, perhaps later this month.

"I get it," said board vice president Frank Grimaldi during the contentious gathering. "We're trying to do the best we can."

Superintendent Kelly Fallon said class size is falling and is expected to dip by about 300 elementary students by next year.

Administrators also said they did not plan to increase class size.

Larissa Anreder, who has two children in Chestnut Hill, said she fears her kids will be separated from their friends. And, while she'd like to see the school remain open, she realizes that is not an option.

"I'm trying to be positive with what they're giving us," she said. "I'm just hoping a majority of the neighborhood stays together."

PTA board co-president Tara Schiff said it was her organization's job to help ease the upcoming transition for students. The group, she said, was considering ice cream socials, tours of the campuses and interschool picnics to bring children together.

"This will be a work in progress," she said.

Ivy Greenberg, 41, who joined the PTA this year, said she worked hard to persuade the board to spare Chestnut Hill. Her husband was one of the school's earliest graduates and she's remiss her 6- and 4-year-old daughters won't have a chance to pass through the same school he did.

"What choice do we have?" she asked. " . . . It's time to move on."

Joseph Tantillo, 52, has three children, including two in Chestnut Hill. But that didn't stop him from recommending to the school board that it should shutter the building. Tantillo, part of the district's facilities steering committee, hopes other parents will come around.

"We all want what's best for our kids," he said. "But we have to be objective and look at what's best for the whole district."

The facilities committee, in a report in late September, recommended the closure of two elementary schools. Officials said the move will save $3 million next year, mostly as a result of staff cuts. No layoffs have been announced.

Like many Long Island districts, Half Hollow Hills' roster of elementary-age students is shrinking. Records show Forest Park and Chestnut Hill had a total of 1,352 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in 2000-01. The schools' combined enrollment this year hit 932, officials said.

Parents have expressed frustration with the decision, saying they didn't understand the board's motivation. They have said they were shocked by the move to close Forest Park, which in 2011 was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School because of its students' academic achievement.

Chestnut Hill and Forest Park each had 36 teachers in 2011-12, according to the state Department of Education's latest school "report cards" posted on its website. Chestnut Hill had an enrollment of 502 students that year, and Forest Park had 496.

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