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Sachem school closing panel: District could shutter 2

Audience members listen to a presentation on possible

Audience members listen to a presentation on possible school closings during the meeting of the Sachem school board at Samoset Middle School on the evening of Feb. 26, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

More than 400 Sachem parents and others jammed a middle school auditorium Wednesday night to get their first news of proposed school closings in Long Island's second-largest district -- including an advisory committee's findings that the system could shut two elementary buildings without loss of educational quality.

The 28-member committee's rationale: Sachem, with 14,145 students, had experienced a loss of about 1,400 students over the past 10 years -- equivalent to the enrollments of two schools.

As for potential sites for closure, the committee appeared to zero in on the Lynwood Avenue and Tecumseh schools, especially Lynwood, due to its relatively small size. However, the group also explored a range of other options that included shuttering as many as four buildings.

Still, the advisory report also concluded that the savings from an elementary-school closing would be relatively small: $437,679 a year in a district that expects to spend more than $290 million next year.

The committee's study cost about $15,000, an official said.

Among anxious parents swarming the auditorium were more than two dozen from Lynwood Avenue Elementary School, many wearing red sweatshirts bearing the school's name.

"Devastated" was how the school's PTA president, Jen Russo, described her reaction to rumors that Lynwood could be closed and its 491 students divided among several other schools.

"Our children have been together since they were 5 years old," said Russo, who has a fourth-grader at the school. "To rip them apart -- I don't find it healthy."

District officials, interviewed before the school board meeting, stressed that recommended closings are just options at this point, and that Sachem could enter the 2014-15 academic year with all 18 of its buildings still in operation.

Across the Island, a growing number of districts are grappling with the question of whether to shutter schools amid shrinking enrollments and tighter budgets.

Closings can raise major controversies within communities, and not just because such moves often are accompanied by large-scale shifts of student populations among buildings. There are longer-term issues to be considered -- for example, whether closings would restrict districts' ability to expand new programs, such as prekindergarten.

Eight districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties have opted to close elementary schools in recent years, including Lindenhurst, which now is trying to sell a building. Two other districts, Island Trees and Seaford, which shut schools years ago, also have put buildings on the market.

Not all closure proposals Islandwide have won approval. Long Beach, for example, considered closing an elementary school earlier this month but dropped the idea, which was opposed by hundreds of parents.

In Sachem, board president Robert Scavo said in a phone interview before the meeting that the district's financial outlook had brightened recently, which could reduce pressures for an immediate decision on closings.

Earlier Wednesday, Bruce Singer, the district's associate superintendent for business, lowered his estimate of next year's needed tax increase from 2.8 percent to 1.9 percent, saying that would comply with the state's tax-cap restrictions.

"It is a little bit of a relief," said Scavo, who teaches culinary classes at a regional BOCES center. "But there's still work to be done."

Among problems to be addressed, he said, are class sizes in middle schools, which have risen to 32 students or more in some instances.

Tax activist Fred Gorman of Nesconset speculated that district officials could be raising the specter of closings to win support for the district's proposed budget. Scavo and other officials denied that discussions of school closings were a scare tactic, saying their six-month study of the issue has been a serious effort.

Budget plans still are being devised in districts across the Island.

Voters in districts statewide will go to the polls May 20 to decide on school budgets and candidates for local boards of education. Last year, Sachem listed a reduction in kindergarten classes from full-day to half-day as a possible cost-cutting move, but ultimately decided against that.


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