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Northport Middle School parents question board on relocation plan

Northport school officials discussed the closure of the Northport Middle School and the relocation of 6660 students at a board meeting Thursday night at Northport High School. Officials on Saturday ordered the Middleville Road campus closed for the rest of the year after tests showed it was located near septic systems and a cesspool containing chemicals that could be causing several ailments. (Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost)

Northport school officials on Thursday launched a multipronged plan of action to help more than 600 Northport Middle School students ease into new classrooms in three other schools, but parents still fired questions at board members about the effectiveness of the plan at a board meeting Thursday night.

The 660 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were getting settled into their new environs for the first time on Thursday, less than a week after Superintendent Rob Banzer ordered the Middleville Road building closed for the rest of the year when tests showed it was located near septic systems and a cesspool containing chemicals that could be causing several ailments.

The plan called for eight-graders to relocate to Northport High School, for seventh-graders to go to East Northport Middle School, and for sixth-graders to settle in at Norwood Avenue Elementary School.

In Banzer’s initial plan, sixth-graders were to be divided between Norwood Avenue and Bellerose Avenue elementary schools, but that strategy was abandoned after residents complained. The change of plan was among several measures the school district took to ease the transition that comes in the middle of the school year.

At a board meeting Thursday night, Banzer gave the first day's effort a high grade, while some parents said the transition was too quick and even unnecessary since the firm conducting the tests that detected benzene and mercury in the area did not explicitly recommend the school be abandoned.

“Overall, it went pretty well,” he said to a crowd of about 400 parents and area residents assembled in Northport High School auditorium. He added that the schools accepting students had been especially welcoming. Indeed, the high school greeted the eight-graders with a “Welcome NMS” sign at the entrance to the building.

Several parents, though, lamented the change, saying their children felt disappointed in losing their school and being absorbed by another one.

"Her school is gone," said one parent who addressed the board and audience during a special public comment period for parents of the middle schoolers.

And some parents asked board members and Banzer whether the schools’ problems would be fixed quickly — now that it is unoccupied — with hopes that students could be return to it. That suggestion drew considerable applause. 

But Banzer said it would likely be too disruptive to move the students twice in a year.

Paul Boyce, president and chief executive officer of P.W. Grosser Consulting, of Bohemia, which conducted the study of the toxins in the area, drew gasps from the audience when he said that his instruments had detected benzene — an organic compound found in gasoline — at up to 16,000 parts per billion, levels far beyond what Suffolk and state health officials deem “actionable.”

The county, Boyce said, says that only 120 parts per billion is “actionable.” But he added that people are exposed to even higher levels of benzene during a trip to a gas station where the strong scent of gas reveals the presence of benzene at levels more than 10 times the level found near the middle school.

Tom and Kim Gulemi said all four of their children attended the middle school, one of which developed headaches and discomfort, ailments that quickly subsided once she graduated last year.

‘It could have been done in a smoother manner,” Kim Gulemi said of the transition, her husband adding that the plan to remediate the building could have been done during the summer — and that it has been a problem board members and administrators have ignored for many years.

Officials communicated how they accommodated the students in notices posted on the district's website. It said that, as much as possible, middle schoolers would maintain their normal schedules of classes, and that bus routes would remain unchanged though the vehicles had to deliver students to three schools instead of one.

Locker assignments were pending but sixth-graders could leave their belongings in homeroom, and the students’ first period class was now their homeroom.

Staffers, including mental health counselors, office aides and others would also be on hand, officials said in a notice posted on the district’s website.

Clubs and intramurals activities would be maintained, as well as evening events and field trips.

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