2017-08-02 / Front Page

Massapequa School Board majority authorizes legal challenge against commissioner's stay

By Michael Scro

The Massapequa School Board voted 3-2 last night to file a legal challenge against a ruling by the state commissioner of education that allowed the 6th grade students to move to Berner Middle School.

 The vote came after a lengthy executive session last night, and before a large crowd of residents, for and against the move.

 On Thursday, New York State Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia issued a stay, temporarily overturning the board’s decision on July 13 that halted the district’s plans to move the students to Middle School in September.

 Voting to move forward with the legal challenge were trustees Tim Taylor, who is president of the board; Brian Butler and Joseph LaBella.

 Opposing were trustees Maryanne Fisher and Gary Baldinger, both who have supported the move since it was introduced by Superintendent of Schools Lucille Iconis almost two years ago.

 The board’s vote calls for the district to file an Article 78 proceeding. Randy Glasser, an attorney for the district explained that an Article 78 requests that a court review a decision or action of a municipality, which in this case would be Commissioner Elia.

The on-again-off again controversy has resulted in confusion for parents and students, pushed Massapequa into the headlines and, once again, puts the proposal in doubt.

The vote was taken in the high school auditorium before residents who waited for the board to return from its executive session proceedings. Supporters began chanting,” Let them move,” while opponents cheered as Board President Tim Taylor and Trustees Joseph LaBella and Brian Butler cast their votes in favor of the Article 78.

 The commissioner acted on a petition filed with her office following the July 13 vote. It was signed by thirteen residents asking that she overturn the vote and allow the 6th grade move to go forward. The petition claimed that the board acted in an “arbitrary and capricious,” manner and that the change was against sound educational policy.

The stay provided the commissioner with time to review the question. It remains in place until she renders a final determination on the Article 78.

Also on the commissioner’s desk is a petition filed in March by opponents of the plan, asking her to reverse the initial vote that allowed the reconfiguration plan to move forward and keep the students in the elementary setting. A spokeswoman for the commissioner would only say that she has the petition and has not acted on it to date.

In the resolution read by Taylor, the school board authorized the law firm Guercio & Guercio, "to commence the Article 78 on behalf of the Massapequa Union Free School District."  The meeting was adjourned once the resolution passed.

"I don't believe the board should challenge the commissioner of education's temporary stay,” said Fisher in a statement before the vote. “My understanding is that the majority of our students, teachers and parents are ready, happy and excited to enter Berner Middle School. This is not about winning or losing; the board must keep in mind that we're here for one purpose and one purpose only—the children."

Move supporters argue that the reconfiguration would provide greater education programs/support services to 6th graders and put the district in line with almost every other district on Long Island, while opponents point to studies that show the Middle School concept for 6th graders puts them at risk, exposing them to older students and the possibility of anti-social behavior, drug and alcohol use. They also cite statistics that show the change lowers test scores for these students.

At one point during the meeting Baldinger asked Taylor to ask the Superintendent to address the impact of approving the Article 78 proceeding on the district's ability to open school on September 6, which Taylor declined to do.  No other trustees gave a statement.  

 Deputy Superintendent Alan Adcock did say, however, that the district has a line item in the budget for legal expenses, and should it exceed that line item amount, the board would be asked to make an appropriation adjustment.  He also added that the district has reserve funds that could be transferred for legal expenses.

Watch for more on this ever-evolving story in the Massapqua Post's pring edition and its online paper at www.massapequapost.com

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