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Northport-East Northport plan could shut 2 schools next fall

Jen Geiger with her husband, Kevin, and their

Jen Geiger with her husband, Kevin, and their children Charlotte and Greyson, in front of Bellerose Avenue Elementary School, which could be closed next year.   Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The Northport-East Northport school district is considering closing one or two elementary schools next fall as part of a reorganization plan that has divided parents in the community.

Declining enrollment, aging buildings and projected drops in tax revenue and state funding spurred deliberations over the possible closures, which could save at least $4.7 million annually in reduced building operation and staff costs, according to a study commissioned by the district.

Some parents strongly oppose the idea, arguing a pandemic is no time to overhaul their kids' schools and that the district has not thought enough about the impact of the changes on students. Other parents support the reorganization effort, calling it a necessary step that school officials have handled with care.

The school board is considering various scenarios and expects to reach a decision in mid-November. The district, which serves around 4,800 students in nine schools, saw its enrollment drop by more than 300 students this year.

The possible closures have sparked widespread debate.

"We’ve heard from a few hundred parents," Superintendent Robert Banzer said in an interview. "It’s a significant issue."

The local teachers union did not respond to a request for comment.

The roots of the low enrollment problem trace back to the postwar era, when builders began constructing schools to accommodate a booming population.

"When I was a kid here, families of kids of three or four weren’t uncommon," said Banzer, who grew up in East Northport and graduated from the district. "Now, that would be on the higher end."

That change is reflected in enrollment trends: 5,140 students attended Northport-East Northport schools last academic year compared with 5,750 five years prior, a drop of 610, or 11%, according to the district. And 96% of kindergarten through fifth-grade classes were below capacity last year.

Compounding the issue is a settlement reached by the Town of Huntington, the Long Island Power Authority and the school district earlier this year after litigation over the assessed property value of LIPA's Northport power plant.

LIPA had contended the town had overassessed the plant's property value for years and LIPA was paying far more in property taxes than it should have. The settlement reduced the amount of property taxes LIPA will pay the town and school district going forward.

The district expects the reduction in LIPA tax revenue will require residents to pay $327 more on average in taxes next year, with further increases likely after that. The district's 2021-22 budget hasn't been finalized. Residents will vote on it in May.

To make matters worse, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has said a state budget crunch caused by the coronavirus pandemic could force New York to cut state aid to school districts by up to 20%.

A drop in tax revenue and state aid would make it difficult to address the millions of dollars in renovations that a district consultant said are needed in Northport-East Northport's now decades-old schools.

The district hired the consultant, SES Study Team of upstate Canastota, in June 2019 and assembled a panel of community members to consider possible remedies to the declining enrollment and revenue issues. An SES report released this past July laid out five possible solutions. Each would close Dickinson Avenue Elementary School, and three would close Bellerose Avenue Elementary School, which the district may use as office space. The grades assigned to other schools could change as well.

The proposals have stirred staunch opposition.

"I was horrified," said Jen Geiger, who has two children in the district, describing her feeling upon learning of the possible closures.

"These kids have been through so much this past year," she said, citing the move to remote learning in the spring and the prolonged anxiety caused by the coronavirus crisis. "I can’t believe they would suggest doing something like this during the pandemic."

Geiger, who attended Bellerose Elementary, called the school a "treasure" that should be preserved. She suggested the district close its administrative building instead and have employees work remotely.

Geiger said she participated in a protest over the reorganization plans in front of the administration building on Oct. 24 attended by at least 50 people.

Adeline Budd, who also has two children in the district, said she felt the district "steamrolled out" the proposals without sufficiently considering the social and emotional effects they would have on children.

All the consultant’s scenarios would require students to spend two years at Northport Middle School. The school is one of two that currently serves sixth- through eight-graders. Under the scenarios proposed, the other school, East Northport Middle School, would serve fourth- and fifth- or fifth- and sixth-graders, requiring them to then attend Northport Middle.

Geiger noted some parents suspect that lingering environmental contamination on Northport Middle's grounds poses a threat to the health of their children. The school was temporarily closed in January after an environmental firm found high levels of benzene in septic tanks and mercury in cesspools outside the building. The sites underwent environmental remediation in the spring, and the school reopened in September.

Banzer said the environmental firm, P.W. Grosser Consulting, has determined the school is safe to occupy after an environmental investigation reviewed by local, state and federal authorities.

A post Friday on the district website says the board is now considering an additional scenario that would enable students to attend East Northport Middle School instead of Northport Middle.

Other parents support the reorganization plan.

"Everybody in this district would keep things as they are if they could," said Julie Hendricks-Atkins, who has two children in the district. But "we have a big issue in our school district that we can’t ignore," she said of declining enrollment. "We have to face it."

Hendricks-Atkins praised the district’s "thoughtful process" in addressing the issue.

Warner Frey, who also attended Bellerose, said he would support closing schools if it helps the district continue to provide a good education to his three sons.

"As long as we’re maintaining our quality of education while also trying to rein in costs, I believe that’s a good plan," he said.

The school board may consider the consultant’s proposals, modified versions of them, or a different plan entirely, according to the district. The board is expected to announce its decision Nov. 19.

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