The state education commissioner on Thursday barred the Massapequa school district from canceling its plan to move the system’s sixth-graders to Berner Middle School when classes begin next month, until she makes a final decision in the matter.
Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s one-page order came in response to a lengthy petition from district residents, who objected to the Massapequa school board’s July 13 reversal of the long-planned sixth-grade move. The petition was filed July 20 with the state Education Department in Albany.
With Elia’s unusual order, it appears the district’s 550 sixth-graders could begin the 2017-18 school year on Sept. 6 at Berner — rather than in the six elementary schools throughout the system. The middle school now has the seventh and eighth grades, with anticipated enrollment of 1,076 students this fall.
Later Thursday, hundreds of parents broke out into applause and gave Superintendent Lucille Iconis, a strong supporter of the middle school’s expansion to include sixth grade, a standing ovation at a board of education meeting.
She said at the meeting that “children would have many more opportunities at Berner.”
School board president Tim Taylor, one of three trustees who voted last month against the sixth-graders’ move, read a statement at the meeting summarizing Elia’s order. “The board is considering all their legal options,” he said.
“We will respect that, like she said,” Taylor said but described the decision “as of this moment.”
Randy Glasser, an attorney representing the district, said “at this point, yes, the board should definitely respect and abide and comply with the commissioner’s decision. That being said, there are legal options,” such as an Article 78, a lawsuit against a municipality for not following its own rules.
Many in attendance were attired in blue to signal their support for the expansion. In recent months, the two sides of the issue donned colors: red if they opposed the reorganization, or blue if they supported it.
Ruth Niemczyk, a grandmother of a fifth-grader, asked board members what she should tell her granddaughter. “We stopped the move and what now?” she said. “Elections should have consequences . . . Not fair.”
Brian Butler, elected to the panel in May, made stopping the change his primary campaign issue.
Rose Stein, one of the parents who signed the petition, said Thursday she was “very appreciative that the New York State commissioner took her time and considered the community’s opinion, and she is doing what is right by our sixth-grade students.” She added, “I hope now that the New York State commissioner has stepped in and made this decision for us as a community, we can come together and help support this first class moving into Berner.”
The residents’ 178-page petition, which Newsday obtained from the Education Department, stated the reversal “is arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to sound educational policy without a rational basis.” The issue has caused furor in the South Shore community.
The school board, after months of meetings and study, voted 3-2 in February 2016 to expand Berner to include the sixth grade.
Iconis, along with many educators and parents, had advocated for sixth-graders’ inclusion in a middle school environment, with more varied academic offerings, clubs and extracurricular activities.
Other parents just as earnestly had opposed the move, saying they preferred the nurturing atmosphere of the elementary schools and that it was best to delay the transition to middle school.
Berner’s expansion was set for the start of the coming school year.
The district had hired and reassigned teachers and staff, reconfigured classrooms and changed bus-load levels. In June, the students’ moving-up from fifth grade was celebrated with special certificates, a boat cruise, and with bagel breakfasts and dances.
Then, with the change in the school board’s membership after the May election came the trustees’ 3-2 vote on July 13 to undo the reorganization plan and the subsequent petition to the state education commissioner.
The board voted to table an item to rescind the appointments of six teachers. Taylor said he couldn’t give a “real answer” to questions about the status of those hires.
At the end of the meeting, Iconis was met by a receiving line of well-wishers.
“I hope it sticks,” she said.