The Massapequa school board Tuesday authorized a lawsuit in connection with the state education commissioner’s decision last week barring the district from canceling plans to integrate sixth-graders into the middle school.
According to a copy of the resolution, the 3-2 vote authorized the district’s law firm, Guercio & Guercio, to “commence legal action and/or proceedings on behalf” of the district against unidentified parties “in connection with the Commissioner of Education’s determination to stay the board’s implementation” of its decision to reverse course. The vote occurred about 9 p.m. after the board had deliberated for nearly three hours in executive session.
A crowd of several hundred shouted, “let them move,” as board members left the auditorium and residents asked to be heard. The board did not permit public comment.
“I don’t believe the board should be challenging the commissioner of education’s decision,” said Maryanne Fisher, a school board trustee who was board president until last month. “This is not about winning or losing . . . this board must keep in mind that we’re here for one purpose and one purpose only: the children.”
School board president Tim Taylor opened the public session of the meeting and stated that the board was “to discuss pending litigation and obtain legal advice” about the matter. He also said the board would “discuss the performance and conduct of specific district employees and to obtain legal rights of counsel,” regarding that issue, he added.
District officials did not discuss any misconduct allegations at the public portions of the meeting.
Hundreds in attendance cheered for Superintendent Lucille Iconis, who applauded and gave a thumbs-up to her supporters as she walked in. Many in the crowd chanted “Go Lucille!” as she walked with board members and school officials into executive session.
Parents milled about the auditorium as the board convened; opponents of the sixth-grade move were dressed in red and supporters in blue.
“I just wanted to know that this was the better choice and I never got that answer,” said Tina Villalobos, parent of an incoming sixth-grader. “I was never convinced that the move was the best choice for my child.”
Beth Ann Schiffl, parent to another sixth-grader, said she came out to support Iconis. “This is atrocious to do to our children and the school administration,” Schiffl said, adding that three board members are “creating such chaos.”
The drama over Berner Middle School dates to February 2016, when the district approved relocating sixth-graders from elementary schools to Berner. The move was to take effect Sept. 6, the start of the 2017-18 academic year.
But the election of Brian Butler, who campaigned against the reconfiguration, to the school board in May changed the panel’s political makeup. On July 13, Butler’s first meeting, the board reversed the move by a vote of 3-2.
Those who support the relocation say the sixth-graders will receive a more varied curriculum and better access to clubs and foreign language offerings. Opponents say the students are best suited in an elementary school setting, with access to teachers they’ve grown up with, and many cited research that supports delaying the transition to middle school as late as possible.
Parents on July 20 filed a 178-page petition in which they said the board’s reversal was “arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to sound educational policy without a rational basis.”
The petition listed possible financial consequences to the district’s 2017-18 budget as a result of canceling the expansion, as well as possible consequences to sixth-graders with learning or developmental disabilities with Individual Educational Programs, known as IEPs, that were created in advance of the middle school expansion.