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Westbury schools struggle with surging enrollment, backlash over $173M bond proposal

Westbury Middle School's principal, David Zimbler, spoke with Newsday on Oct. 17, 2015 about conditions at the 91-year-old school with a student population of 1,068. The school is so overcrowded that some classrooms are in the basement, and students don?t all eat in the cafeteria ? some eat in guidance counselors' offices or other classrooms, Zimbler says. To accommodate students, lunch is early and often, starting at 10:30 a.m. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

The cafeteria at Westbury Middle School is so crowded that students avoid it. They try for space in guidance counselors' offices or other rooms in the 91-year-old school. To accommodate everyone, lunch is often, and early, beginning at 10:30 a.m.

Some of the school's classrooms are in the basement, where a ladder leaning against a wall to a window serves as the fire escape. Summing up conditions, Pless Dickerson, the president of the school board, said the district has entered a "crisis phase."

School officials in September proposed a $172.6 million bond resolution to be voted on Nov. 17 that would help pay for massive upgrading of facilities in the district. Under blistering criticism, the district canceled the vote three weeks after offering it.

Residents and local lawmakers, including the Westbury Village mayor, said the proposal would add an average annual $300 tax charge over the next 30 years. And that on top of the rate of school taxes that are already the second-highest in Nassau County.

The backlash against the bond proposal comes from a community worried about the size of the bond, among the highest in state history. Critics say the bond is too big for a district with a $130 million annual budget, even as some say the improvements are badly needed.

Without setting a new vote date, the district has asked for more input from the public and is offering tours of the schools while they are in session to showcase conditions.

The Westbury school district, unlike many on Long Island struggling with falling enrollment and building closures, is wrestling with surging demand -- much of it from a growing immigrant community, officials said. Adding to the district's challenges is that 77 percent of students are eligible for a free lunch, and 30 percent are considered to have limited English proficiency.

"I do not question the need for additional instructional space. Our school district has had increasing enrollment where most have not," Westbury Mayor Peter Cavallaro said. "It's just untenable; the people in the village will move before they pay $500 extra for that one item."

Westbury Superintendent Mary Lagnado said the district has the opportunity to dramatically improve facilities, while having the state Education Department cover nearly 77 percent of the bond.

"It's become a money pit," Lagnado said of the facilities, largely the middle school, which she said alone requires $50 million in repairs. "It's not that we're building for the future, we're building for the kids we have now."

Enrollment districtwide rose 32 percent between 2007 and 2015, from 3,772 to 4,992 students, according to recent figures. Lagnado expects enrollment to increase at least by 3 percent over the next few years. Some Long Island districts -- such as Sachem and Lindenhurst -- have seen shrinking enrollment. Lindenhurst is now debating the future of a shuttered elementary school.

Crowded halls

In Westbury's middle school, some hallways are too narrow, requiring students to take longer routes to class. Often, students reaching for books at their floor-level lockers have been bumped by other students walking the crowded halls. A narrow teachers lounge in the basement is targeted for new classroom space, officials said.

Devin Thornburg, a professor of education at Adelphi University, said that, with rising enrollment, Westbury does not have the tax base to keep up and the finances to replenish its facilities.

The school district, which draws about 15 percent of students from the Village of Westbury and the rest largely from the unincorporated hamlet of New Cassel, has 74 homeless students and 130 unaccompanied minors.

Many new students have come from Central America, Haiti and El Salvador. The Hispanic population in New Cassel was 49 percent in 2013, up from 41 percent in 2000. Westbury Village's Hispanic population has risen from 19 percent to 25 percent in the same period.

Patrick Young, 57, a lifelong village resident and director of programming for the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead, said many from those countries left for the United States during civil wars and periods of violence dating back to the 1980s.

"You have seen a growing number of Latinos coming into the community," Young said.

But he and others have questioned the district's planning. "You essentially fill all the schools to the hilt, and are surprised when school buildings are overcrowded."

Lagnado said the district has repaired facilities over the past 12 years, much of it covered by state aid.

"We have addressed" the facilities, Lagnado said. But she added, "at no time did we think this continued enrollment growth would continue at this rate. When you had the unaccompanied youth this summer, that wasn't in the projection at all."

Bishop Lionel Harvey of the First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury said: "The schools weren't built to contain the population that we have. You've had a large influx of people -- Latino American brothers, Haitian American brothers, people from all ethnicities that have been coming here and looking for a better life."

'Natural progression'

"They're coming here and having children, like we all do," said Harvey, who has worked at the cathedral for 16 years. "It's just a natural progression of what's taken place."

The high school population is 1,488 students, but it was built for 900, Lagnado said. The high school may move to a split session to control the flow of crowds. Lagnado has asked guidance counselors to propose schedules where some students attend school in the morning, while others are there later in the day. She said she worries about the impact on athletics.

On a recent tour of the cafeteria, David Zimbler, the principal of the middle school, enrollment 1,068, observed as some students waited on line the entire period.

Thornburg, of Adelphi, says that overcrowding can lead to "more kids dropping out and not feeling connected to teachers." Often in cases of overcrowded schools, there is "no safety net that can be easily made for kids that may be at risk."

The district has pressed for more federal funding to handle the increase in unaccompanied minors who are moving into the district. It received about $80,000 in Federal Title I funding for the 2015-16 school year, according to Lagnado.

"This is devastating for us," said Steve Corte, a Westbury village trustee who works in the Nassau County assessment department. "We understand they need what they need, but where are you going to get the money?"

Illegal housing problem

Cavallaro says he has pointed out to officials from the district and Town of North Hempstead that there is a growing illegal housing problem in the communities of Westbury and New Cassel. The problem has for years eluded code enforcement officers, and the town has 75 open court cases prosecuting illegal housing violations in the communities of Westbury and New Cassel.

Code enforcement officers have watched out for new electric meters and the appearance of too many mailboxes at one residence. North Hempstead officials aim to prosecute "to the point where we can really make a dent in the financial viability in the operation," Town Attorney Elizabeth Botwin said. "We have the same landlords in court over and over again."

North Hempstead Building Commissioner John Niewender said: "It's a problem we've been trying to combat; we get into one property, we clean it up. Relocating people is a major problem, when you do an investigation and you clean up the property, those people end up somewhere else."

Notwithstanding the need, opponents said the price to correct the problem is too high.

Cavallaro said: "You cannot impose this kind of a drastic financial harm on the district, because it basically will lead to the district becoming more challenged, more undesirable, frankly. That will have a spiral effect in the district, lead to more overpopulation. You're going to have seniors on fixed income, fed up, and they're going to leave."

And, he said, "more absentee landlords are going to come into those homes."

As for the bond vote, Lagnado said it will be rescheduled.

"It's still very much something we know we're going to have to do," Lagnado said.

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