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Forest Park parents speak out on school's closure

Forest Park Elementary School is one of the

Forest Park Elementary School is one of the elementary schools in the Half Hollow Hills school district. (Jan. 25, 2012) Credit: Alessandra Malito

Parents of Forest Park Elementary School students Wednesday raised safety and health concerns about a district school their children may be assigned to attend in the 2014-15 academic year if their own facility is closed in June, as planned.

At an often heated and emotional meeting of Forest Park's Parent Teacher Association, several parents said they believe that Forest Park, which is nestled within a neighborhood, is in a safer location than Vanderbilt Elementary School, on Route 231, a state highway.

Juliette Trope, who has two children at Forest Park and is a physician in a neonatal intensive care unit, walked up to district officials at the meeting and handed them a stack of documents, including medical studies.

She spoke about the effect that fuel emissions and exhaust could have on children's health.

"If you do have the option to choose one school over another, why wouldn't you choose the one that is safer?" Trope asked.

Superintendent Kelly Fallon said she will discuss the issue with the district's lawyer and the state Department of Education. She noted that all the district's buildings meet state guidelines.

"This is very much a new conversation and a new variable," she said.

The Half Hollow Hills school board voted unanimously Oct. 28 to close Forest Park and Chestnut Hill Elementary because of declining enrollment districtwide. Wednesday's meeting, the first PTA gathering at Forest Park since the board's vote, drew about 100 people.

A board-appointed facilities committee, made up mostly of district residents, eventually focused on four campuses, proposing a choice of closing Forest Park or Vanderbilt, and Chestnut Hill or Signal Hill. The committee's report, dated Sept. 26, gave pros and cons of each school.

Board president James Ptucha said the concerns that parents voiced Wednesday will not change trustees' decision to close Forest Park.

"I think it is giving people a sense of false hope," Ptucha said after the meeting. He said he has researched the issue of fuel emissions locally because he fought a proposal years ago to construct a rest stop along the Long Island Expressway in Dix Hills.

At the meeting, Ptucha said the main reason the board chose to close Forest Park rather than Vanderbilt was that it will affect fewer children.

"We have to keep our focus on the kids," he said.

The board considered safety and security criteria, he said, adding that Vanderbilt is more accessible because it is on a larger state road, while Forest Park is reachable only by DeForest Avenue, a two-lane town road in a residential area.

Todd Cohen, a Dix Hills fire commissioner, said fire officials were not asked for their input. Cohen, who has two children at Forest Park, said he believes the two schools are equally accessible.

Parents had other concerns about Vanderbilt's proximity to Route 231, including the visibility of students when they are on the playground and availability of parking when dropping off and picking up their children.

"You're opening the district to big problems when someone gets hurt on 231," parent Ruth Gruber said.Fallon and board members heard from parents of Chestnut Hill students at a PTA meeting Monday night at that school. Parents there said district officials did a poor job of communicating the plan for the schools' closure, and some spoke worriedly about their children being separated from their friends.

The closures are expected to save the district about $3 million next year, with most of that coming from staffing cuts. Currently there are about 80 empty classrooms in the district, which has a $228 million budget.

Forest Park and Chestnut Hill had a total of 1,352 students in kindergarten through fifth grade in 2000-01, state records show. Even with prekindergarten classes added, the schools' combined enrollment this year dipped to 932, the district said.

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