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Smithtown district may close school building

Branch Brook Elementary is seen in Smithtown, Monday.

Branch Brook Elementary is seen in Smithtown, Monday. (Dec. 20, 2010) Credit: Ed Betz

An economic and enrollment squeeze is prompting Smithtown to join other area school systems in eyeing the potential closing of an elementary building by the end of the school year.

Smithtown is looking at three schools - Branch Brook, Dogwood and Nesconset. A school board vote on which school to close - if any - is expected by spring, local officials say.

Mineola, meanwhile, is weighing whether to lease one of its elementary schools to a private academy, and Lindenhurst already has moved to close an elementary building this summer.

Smithtown officials emphasize that no decision on closure has yet been reached. But like many colleagues in other districts, Smithtown officials say the prospect of cuts in federal and state school aid next year, coupled with a proposed statewide cap on property tax increases, is forcing them to rethink spending priorities.

"We're all experiencing the difficult economy, we're all trying to save on taxes," said Meryl Ain, assistant to Smithtown's superintendent for general administration and planning.

Pressures to shutter schools also are mounting due to a gradual decline in enrollments Islandwide that demographers expect to accelerate over the next three years. Smithtown's elementary school population has dropped from 5,167 in 2005-06 to 4,711 this fall.

Smithtown officials estimate shuttering one of its nine elementary schools would allow the district to consolidate classes and eliminate five teacher positions, at a savings of at least $400,000, coupled with cuts in other areas such as electricity and heating. Officials add that all this could be achieved without increasing the district's current class size maximums of 25 students in grades k-3 and 27 students in grades 4-5.

Despite such reassurances, the prospect of closing a school upsets many parents. Stacey Berman, a PTA officer with a third-grader at Nesconset Elementary School, notes that parents and students alike have invested considerable effort in beautifying the school by painting ceiling tiles and planting flowers and trees.

"As a PTA, we do a lot more than sending our kids to elementary school," Berman said. "It is very frustrating."

In Mineola, the school board is considering a proposal to lease the district's Cross Street Elementary School next year to the Solomon Schechter schools, which are private Jewish academies headquartered in Glen Cove. District officials say a final decision will not be reached until the first week of January at the earliest. Rabbi Lev Herrnson, head of the Schechter schools, declined to comment Monday.

In any case, Cross Street will close in September, and another elementary building, Willis Avenue School, will shut down in September 2012, according to Karina Stabile, a district spokeswoman.

Last month, the Lindenhurst school board voted to shutter the district's 243-student Bower Elementary School as an economy move. The district, which has seen an enrollment decline of more than 900 students since 1999, says the closing will save a total of $1.5 million in personnel and other costs.

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