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Facing cuts, Mineola considers closing two schools

Faced with what its school superintendent calls "a perfect storm" squeezing school financing, the Mineola district is considering closing two elementary schools.

The proposal is meant to cope with expected losses of state aid and federal stimulus money along with other financial hits, as payroll-related costs rise.

"We have an option - we have small elementary schools," Superintendent Michael Nagler said. "We are asking the board and community to grapple with: Is it better to try and preserve our program and reconfigure, or do we want to gamble to pay for the programs we have?"

Mineola has four elementary schools for grades 1-5 and one pre-K-to-kindergarten building. Three buildings house fewer than 200 students each. At Thursday's board meeting, district officials presented a plan to close two schools - which ones have not been determined - and cluster grades in the remaining schools.

Many experts say schools statewide will face similar tough decisions and financial hardships in the wake of the anticipated loss of federal stimulus money over the next two years and proposed cuts in state aid for 2010-11 by Gov. David A. Paterson.

Paterson's budget proposal calls for a $467,583 reduction in aid to Mineola schools, and the district expects to earn $200,000 less than projected on interest. This year's budget is $79,239,241.

To maintain for the next three years the 2.5 percent tax levy increase of last spring, the district would need to make $8 million in cuts over that time, digging significantly into current programs if all schools remain open, Nagler said in the presentation.

Closing two schools would save $5 million within two years, he said, plus reductions in utilities and other operating costs, as well as long-term savings due to staff reductions.

"That is the dilemma we have: If you excess teachers without closing buildings, you are hitting programs," Nagler said. "If you close a building and condense classes, you are eliminating positions you don't need."

The district has about 650 employees, including 300 teachers. There are 2,700 students from grades pre-K to 12.

But closing schools and converting others to handle more students also requires money, said Nagler, noting current facilities would need expansion and renovation. The Board of Education would have to start planning now to establish a capital reserve fund to pay for future construction, he said.

The first closing would be in September 2011; the second in 2012.

Matt Miller, co-PTA president for Cross Street Elementary and a parent of three daughters, ages 9, 8 and 6, said Nagler's proposal "is a good plan."

"By clustering the students, the district will be able to deliver to our diverse community programs and services that will be equally beneficial to all of our students," he said.

But Patricia Whitlock, parent of a second-grader and another child entering pre-K in the fall, recommended closing the Willis Avenue school, which houses pre-K and kindergarten, and dispersing those classes among the other schools.

She questioned why the district should spend millions for renovations "if we don't have the money to keep the schools we have."

With Tim Robertson

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