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State speeds up lease review for school to house Hempstead students after fire

St. Catherine of Sienna School in Franklin Square

St. Catherine of Sienna School in Franklin Square will temporarily house kindergarten and pre-K students starting Monday, officials said.     Credit: Danielle Silverman

The state Education Department is speeding up its review of the lease for a Catholic school in Franklin Square where the Hempstead school district plans to house students displaced by a fire at Prospect School.

The Hempstead school board Monday unanimously voted to enter into the $479,052 temporary lease with the Diocese of Rockville Centre through June 30, 2019, for the former St. Catherine of Sienna School. The agreement is subject to the approval of state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. The district's insurance will cover up to $250,000, and the remaining costs for housing the students will be covered by state lease aid and, if needed, the district’s fund balance, district officials have said.

Lease approval is the first step in a process the district hopes to hasten as it works to limit the impact on the approximately 600 kindergarten and pre-K students and their families.

“As said when this unfortunate event occurred, we are doing everything we can to assist the district and are expediting the review of the lease,” Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in an emailed statement. “We expect to complete it in time for the start of the school year.”

Acting District Superintendent Regina Armstrong has said she hopes to have the former Catholic school building at 990 Holzheimer St. up and running soon. Armstrong, at Monday’s board meeting, said the first day of classes could tentatively be Sept. 17 — 12 days after the Sept. 5 official start date for the district’s students.

A letter from Prospect School principal Carole Eason alerting parents to the change in venue and start date was posted Wednesday on the district’s website and mailed to the parents of registered students, according to the district.

The district plans to host a public meeting next week to inform parents and is looking into whether it can work with the village to have robocalls to all households, Armstrong said. Some parents do not enroll their children until the last minute or on the first day, so the robocall would allow the district the ability to reach more of those parents, she said.

Eason, in her letter to parents, wrote that the official start date will be “announced shortly.”

The district plans to request a waiver from the Education Department, because with the late start date, it will not otherwise meet the mandated minimum of 180 days of instruction per school year, Armstrong said.

Generally, an incident of this nature would fall under the waiver guidelines, according to the department.

On Aug. 7, lightning struck the roof of the Prospect School, causing it to catch fire. District officials have said the Peninsula Boulevard building likely won't be fixed until mid-March because of damage caused by the fire and water used by firefighters to extinguish the blaze. The cost of the damage still is being assessed, officials said Monday.

In the weeks since, district and Nassau BOCES officials worked to find a location that met the state’s specific criteria for housing pre-K and kindergarten students.

The former St. Catherine of Sienna School meets those standards and allows the district to house all 72 pre-K and more than 500 kindergartners in the same place, the district said.

The school, which was dedicated in 1956 and closed in June 2012, currently is being used for the St. Catherine of Sienna R.C. Church offices, Faith Formation, the Catholic Youth Organization and other parish events, said Sean P. Dolan, director of communications for the diocese. Those events typically take place in the late afternoon and during evenings and weekends, so there’s no conflict, he said.

“The pastor — Rev. Msgr. Richard Figliozzi — spoke at all Masses this past weekend advising parishioners of the situation," Dolan said. "The usual reaction at each Mass was applause.”

No changes are needed to the building itself, because it previously was a school, Dolan said.

Prospect School leaders already have been in the school starting to plan details for the transition, Dolan said.

Once they have approval from the Education Department, the district needs to set up for the first day of school, Armstrong said. This includes moving furniture to the school, decorating classrooms, ensuring internet access is set up, and that all instructional materials that are needed are in the building.

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