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Board Delays ‘Sixth’ Decision

A recent Massapequa school board meeting had residents and education officials debating the pros and cons of moving the district’s 6th graders from elementary schools into Berner Middle School.

Heard by the district’s Board of Education panel, including president Gary Bennett, the meeting began with a presentation by Massapequa School District Superintendent Lucille Iconis. The superintendent said a task force consisting of teachers, former and current, as well as other education officials, decided to recommend moving 6th graders into middle school because it would afford students a wider range of educational opportunities.

The board had planned to make a final decision on the moving within a week, but Bennett said the spirited debate uncovered many questions — far more than can be solved in a week’s time.

“We are postponing our decision for a date to be determined,” said Bennett. “We want to discuss it more. We want to digest the views we heard during the meeting and do our job to figure out what is best for the district.”

During her presentation to the packed auditorium at Massapequa High School, Iconis said that out of the 56 Nassau school districts, Massapequa is one of only six with its 6th graders in elementary school. In fact, she noted, 75 percent of school districts in the nation have 6th graders in middle school.

When residents said that Massapequa should be a “leader not a follower” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Iconis responded that she is always looking for ways to bolster education for the youngest Massapequans.

“Sure, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if we can do anything to improve the district, why sit back on our laurels?” Iconis asked the crowd. “We want to provide the greatest advantages to our children. And this task force belives moving 6th graders to middle school would open a vast new world of learning for students. The staff at Berner is more than capable of helping students transition. It’s all about the human connection. We do it and we do it well.”

To illustrate the cost of moving students to middle schools, Iconis yielded the floor to deputy superintendent Alan Adcock. He told the crowd that construction to expand Berner would amount to $6.2 million; adding four additional buses for transportation would cost approximately $302,000; while technology for the new middle schoolers would cost $350,000.

For the taxpayers, Adcock said eash household per year would pay $4.31 for construction, $7.58 for transportation and $9.07 for technology — for a grand total of $20.96 per year, per household.

Iconis made clear that no elementary schools in Massapequa would close.

“Elementary schools are the hubs of our neighborhoods,” she said, adding that the district will repurpose the space left vacant by the departing 6th graders.

The transition would take place in two phases, according to Iconis. The first phase involves moving sixth graders to middle school, while the second phase would see 9th graders move out of Ames and into Massapequa High School’s main campus.

“This would finally give us a unified high school,” she said.

But most residents at the meeting spoke against both phases, calling out Iconis and the task force for making these decisions in haste.

“One thing is clear after this meeting — more debate is needed,” said Rob Welling, a Massapequa resident. “There needs to be much more time taken on this issue. The task force did what it could with the time allotted, but I did not see a compelling argument to go ahead and move the 6th grader into Berner.”

While the board said it would need more time to come to a decision, one board member freely expressed his views against moving students out of elementary and into middle school.

“There are both both cultural and neighborhood costs to this move,” said Timothy Taylor. “We are rushing into this too fast.”

Taylor noted declining enrollment in elementary schools as reason enough to forget the move. During Iconis’ presentation, she noted the district is seeing enrollment decline and none of the district’s elementary schools are at 100 percent occupancy. Taylor said pulling the 6th grade class out of the elementary schools would force the eventual closure of not one, but two elementary schools.

“Taking 6th graders out would reduce those schools by about 25 percent each,” he said. “We will be looking at the closure of at least two elementary schools. There will be a major backlash to property values.”

After the meeting, and after the board’s decision to postpone its vote, Bennett said he was extremely happy to bring the issue to the public, as it stirred up a healthy debate and raised many important questions.

“This particular board believes in giving opposing views an opportunity to share and debate,” he said. “In order to reach a decision of this magnitute, all sides must be heard.”