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Half Hollow Hills residents petition state on Forest Park school closure

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) Credit: Alessandra Malito

Dozens of Half Hollow Hills school district residents have petitioned state Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to halt the school board's decision to close Forest Park Elementary School.

"We believe the situation requires a review with the impartial eyes of the commissioner, as we are certain the evidence reveals that our board of education has conducted its decision-making in a manner that is arbitrary, capricious and contrary to sound educational policy," reads the petition, which was signed by 58 district residents, mostly parents of Forest Park Elementary students.

The school board voted unanimously Oct. 28 to close the Forest Park and Chestnut Hill schools at the end of the school year, citing declining enrollment. The decision brought protests from parents, particularly those whose children attend Forest Park, named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2011 for its academic achievement.

The district this year has 3,475 students in its seven elementary schools, and 932 of them are in the Forest Park and Chestnut Hill schools.

The Education Department said Monday it had received the petition seeking a stay of the board's decision to close the school. Section 310 of state education law authorizes such appeals and petitions to the commissioner, and gives him the power both to regulate the contested practice and to determine whether to stop it or impose conditions "upon which it shall or shall not so operate."

"The appeal has been filed and our counsel's office is now waiting for the answer to the stay request, which will come from the Board of Ed," department spokesman Tom Dunn said in an email. "Until that arrives, no decision will be made on the appeal."

The school board's response will be filed Thursday, said Jack Feldman, the board's attorney.

The petition was sent to the Education Department last week, before the Thanksgiving holiday.

In a similar case involving falling enrollment, King in August dismissed an appeal of the closure of an upstate Warwick Valley Central School District elementary school. Petitioners' "mere disagreement" with the district's findings and decision "do not provide a basis to overturn" the decision, he wrote.

The Half Hollow Hills closure vote came after a board-appointed facilities committee, made up mostly of district residents, recommended in a September report that the board shutter two elementary schools: either Forest Park or Vanderbilt, and either Chestnut Hill or Signal Hill.

School board president James Ptucha said Monday of the board's action, "We haven't done anything wrong."

At a meeting earlier this month, Ptucha said the No. 1 reason the trustees chose to close Forest Park was because it affects fewer children than closing Vanderbilt.

He cited safety and security as other reasons.

The petition challenges those factors, saying neither "can be supported by any evidence and are in direct contradiction to the facts at hand."

Twila Silverman, a Forest Park parent who signed the petition, said the board "omitted major criteria to be considered, such as health and safety factors. When presented with this factual information, it was basically ignored, forcing us to have the state commissioner to review the matter."

The residents assert that Forest Park's location is less dangerous to children; that it is the preferred site for first responders; that the environmental impact of the various schools' locations wasn't considered; and that the argument that the school's closure affects the least number of children is "fatally flawed."The petition also says "there has been no indication to the public that the BOE subsequently sought and/or consulted with outside professionals before making its decision" and that the board voted to close the two schools without any public deliberation.

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