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Closing

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The Maryhaven Facility in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

A Port Jefferson school for children and young adults with developmental disabilities announced it would be shutting down gradually over the next two years.

The Maryhaven Center of Hope, whose entrance is located along Myrtle Avenue in Port Jefferson, announced it will shut down the school over time, regularly moving the children, aged 5 through 21, along with faculty to different Maryhaven facilities on Long Island.

The entrance gate to the Marhaven facility in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

“We have to stay open, and we want to stay open until every student is placed,” said Chris Hendriks, a Catholic Health Services of Long Island spokeswoman. “This population requires one-to-one care.”

Representatives from Catholic Health Services, which runs Maryhaven, said it would begin winding down the residential school program at the end of the 2018-19 school year. It’s 71 students will need to be placed in other programs.

“It is a very difficult decision to close this important program that we have been running for more than 50 years, and we are heartbroken that we must do that,” said Maryhaven President and CEO Lewis Grossman in a press release. “But this action is the only fiscally responsible option to secure a strong and vital future for Maryhaven’s many other needed programs.”

In a letter posted to the Maryhaven website, Grossman added he anticipates the program would be active throughout the 2019-20 school year.

Maryhaven, which aids over 1,500 children and young adults in total, has experienced a significant operating loss at the Port Jeff from 2018 at approximately $1.7 million, according to the press release. The facility off Myrtle Avenue is also aging at an unsustainable rate, Hendriks said. The school said it would cost more than $10 million to renovate the building, which was originally constructed in the 1930s. The spokeswoman added the reimbursement rates New York State supplies to the organization has declined in recent years.

“The state’s rates that give us the money for caring for these children has not kept up with the pace of cost of living.” the spokeswoman said. “For example, as of this week we got the rates for 2016, so we’re paying well in advance and then have to wait to be reimbursed back.”

Several Maryhaven students will be older than 21 after June, Hendriks said. The letter by the Maryhaven CEO said those age 21 or older will be eligible for adult placement through the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, and some will be able to transfer to other adult programs within Maryhaven.

Hendriks said Catholic Health Services is offering monetary incentives for the near 200 workers at the facility to stay on with the health care service provider until the end. Those who stay on will be moved to other Maryhaven or other service centers within the orbit of CHSLI. 

For the students, Hendriks said where they attend after the Port Jeff facility is closed will be up to their respective school districts.

“This population requires one-to-one care.”

— Chris Hendricks

“The way it works is if, for example, the [Smithtown] school district can’t care for a child because they often have behavioral social, medical or behavioral issues, the school districts send them to our facilities and we take care of them,” she said. “Now, in this case it’s up to the school district to find a new location for them with the help of the state, and there are other locations to go to.” 

Parents of children in the Maryhaven programs were brought in for a special meeting March 12 to discuss their options.

Many people who knew of the facility voiced their disappointment of the news on social media. Now a Change.org petition called Save Maryhaven’s Children Services!! has reached more than 8,500 people in support. The petition calls for U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) or Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), along with other state and federal representatives, to step in and give support to the ailing facility. Some signing the petition said they had children who attend the facility, others claimed they had worked with Maryhaven and were devastated to see it go.

“I’ve worked here for 10 years, and the dedication of staff is priceless,” said Jennifer Moore, of Brentwood, on the petition. “Everyone is like second family, we care so much for our clients. I am devastated for my fellow employees but even more so for the kids.”

Maryfran Fantigrossi, who has worked with the school for 30 years, said she has seen the good work the school does for its students.

“Special needs children need and deserve a residential school that will help [them] in all facets of their lives to be the best person they can,” Fantigrossi said on the petition. “Maryhaven has done that for years.” 

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

The Smithtown school board voted to close Branch Brook Elementary School at a board of education meeting Tuesday, effective June 30, 2017. Five board members, including President Christopher Alcure, were in favor of the closure. Gladys Waldron, the board’s longest tenured member, was responsible for the lone “no” vote.

“For four years we’ve made cuts to the program, and it is not a proposition that I would like to continue,” Alcure said following the meeting. “We have declining enrollment. We have space in other buildings. Due to the fact that Branch Brook is one of the smaller buildings, and in my mindset we needed to close a building, and if we kept that open and closed one of the other ones and we had a sudden, unexpected uptick in enrollment, Branch Brook could not accommodate being one of seven schools. If we have an uptick in enrollment in two or three years when Branch Brook is closed, we’ll be able to absorb about 1,200 kids, and that was my deciding factor.”

Closing at least one elementary school has been an intensely debated issue between the community, the school board and district administration since the middle of November when Superintendent James Grossane presented the findings of a housing committee that was assembled earlier in 2015. Grossane presented the board with five options as cost saving measures.

Closing Branch Brook was a part of four of the five options. Tuesday’s vote sealed the fate of Branch Brook, though Grossane will take his time in selected one of the four options from his November proposal, he said. More debate is still to come about what happens to students in the seven elementary schools that are not closing to make room for those leaving Branch Brook.

With emotions running high and a filled-to-capacity auditorium in the New York Avenue building that serves as district headquarters in Smithtown, the vote was received with anger and sadness from the community.

Katie Healy has been one of the most outspoken Branch Brook parents throughout the process.

“If I choose to stay, I will hold each and every one of you accountable and likely pushing one of you out,” Healy said to the five board members who voted yes. “I will be okay, and I will fight for those that will have a tough time but I will be there to show you that your losses are greater than your gains. If I choose to stay in this state I will hold you accountable…shame on you.”

School board meetings and public work sessions had taken on some added emotion leading up to Tuesday, though emotions boiled over following the vote. One parent was removed by security after the meeting was over after yelling at members of the board. One was warned twice by Grossane for using profanity during her allotted public comment time.

Peter Troiano was one of the parents responsible for the Save Branch Brook movement on Facebook and an Internet petition.

“I’ll keep this quick,” Troiano said Tuesday as he addressed the board. “You’re all incompetent. You shouldn’t have signed up for this job if you couldn’t do it right. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. I don’t know how you sleep at night. You disgust me. And rest assured, this isn’t over. We plan on taking further action so get ready.”

Troiano dropped the microphone to the ground and exited following his comments. He did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate about his future plans.

Waldron defended her position to oppose closing Branch Brook to applause from the hundreds in attendance. The idea of selling the administration building on New York Avenue has been a rallying cry for the Save Branch Brook community members, though little progress has been made.

“The only reason why I am not in favor of closing a school, whether it be Branch Brook or any other school, is that I think our energies and effort of administration and board should be placed right now on the selling of this building,” Waldron said.

The necessity to close a school, according to Grossane and his administration, can be attributed to declining enrollment and revenue. Andrew Tobin, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, has said in the past that a deficit is on the horizon for the district.

“I can’t tell you that 2017-18 will be the deficit year, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we look out ahead that 2017-18, maybe 2018-19, if we don’t get those type of increases, we know our expenses are going to go up, we’re going to certainly be facing it at some point,” Tobin said at a public work session on Jan. 19.

Grossane responded following the meeting to claims from some community members that the decision to close Branch Brook has been inevitable since his presentation in November.

“This decision wasn’t made months ago,” he said. “It was very careful. It was very measured. The committee did a lot of work. They brought the material. I reviewed it.”

Grossane said that a lot of time and work went into the decision, and that it bothered him that some in the community perceived it differently.

Grossane’s November report estimated that closing an elementary school would save the district about $725,000 annually. Tobin said that Tuesday’s decision should relieve some of the financial trouble that the district is anticipating in the future, though their work is not done.

School board meetings since November have been well attended by parents wearing blue Save Branch Brook T-shirts. They submitted their own sixth option for the board’s consideration, which was assembled by parents in the statistical analysis field. Option 6 concluded that Branch Brook made the least sense for closure of the eight elementary schools, based on projected enrollment decrease over the next 10 years, building occupancy, square foot per student, students per usable classroom and utility cost.

Grossane defended his suggestion that Branch Brook made the most sense for closure at the Jan. 19 work session. Closing Branch Brook would do the least damage to the discrepancy of elementary students being on track to attend either High School East or High School West when they reach ninth grade, according to Grossane’s data. Additionally, because Branch Brook is the smallest of the eight schools in terms of capacity, its closure would leave the district least vulnerable to overcrowding if there were a future increase in enrollment.

Closing Branch Brook should increase average class size, though Grossane called instances where any classes would reach a district implemented maximum of 28 students “outliers,” on Jan. 19.

“Every school has a grade level that runs almost to maximum,” Grossane said. “If we close a building and we operate with seven, those outliers would smooth out. They’d shift. There would still be an outlier occasionally in every building. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t going to be a class in fifth grade that doesn’t have a 28 at some point within the next six years after we close a building, because there definitely will be. But it’s usually one grade per building. Most times, the class averages even out across the district.”

School board member Grace Plourde presented discussions on Feb. 9 from an earlier business affairs meeting regarding the budget for 2016-17. The deficit that Tobin suggested to be on the horizon was not expected to occur for the 2016-17 school year, mainly due to a low number of retirement payments. Tobin said Tuesday that the district is in “golden years for pension reprieve,” though he expects that to change in the near future.

“We may find that we’re not in the kind of trouble that we have been in in prior years,” Plourde said. “Our preliminary budget is looking pretty stable. We’re anticipating that at this point we’re not going to have to make the kinds of painful cuts that we’ve had to make in prior years, but again it’s not because we’re getting the kinds of revenue we need to get.”

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The McDonald’s in Port Jefferson has closed. Photo by Reid Biondo

A longtime fixture in downtown Port Jefferson closed last week, leaving a business next to Village Hall empty.

The McDonald’s fast food restaurant on West Broadway had been controversial when it first moved in more than a decade ago, but what has been perceived as its abrupt closure has left some scratching their heads. Visitors were met with a sign directing them to a different franchise location in Port Jefferson Station.

“I was totally shocked,” Barbara Sabatino said about when she found out the harborfront restaurant had closed.

The owners and operators of the business, franchisees Peter and Katie Hunt, said in an email statement through a McDonald’s spokesperson on Monday, “It’s been a pleasure to serve this neighborhood and we appreciate the support of the local business community, elected officials and community partners. We are very happy to report that all of our employees have accepted jobs at nearby McDonald’s locations. We remain committed to serving Port Jefferson, and we look forward to continuing our work in this community.”

Sabatino, who runs the Port Jeff Army Navy in upper Port and serves on the village planning board, was a member of the now-defunct civic association at the time McDonald’s was trying to locate in lower Port more than 15 years ago.

“They really had a difficult time,” she said. “[Some people] felt that a McDonald’s did not fit their view of Port Jefferson.”

There were also people on the other side of the argument, she added, who had an attitude of “what’s the big deal?”

While village officials said they were concerned about how the restaurant would look, Sabatino said, the owner was “cooperative” on the architecture and finishing touches, giving it that “seafaring town look, with the dormers on the top and the little trim.”

And the business owner noted that the restaurant has been a good neighbor, cleaning up trash and keeping the property looking nice.

The controversy over it coming in was enough to spur the village board of trustees to take precautions for the future.

According to the village code, officials amended Port Jefferson’s zoning laws in June 2000 to prohibit “formula fast food establishments” in both the C-1 and C-2 central commercial districts, which are located along the main drag in the downtown and uptown areas, respectively.

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Housing committee member Annemarie Vinas addresses the school board at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Alex Petroski

With a possible deficit looming, the Smithtown Central School District board of education is moving closer to a decision on the fate of its eight elementary schools, following a public work session on Jan. 19 and a board meeting on Jan. 26.

Discussions between the school board and the community were getting emotional this week.

Superintendent James Grossane, with the help of Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Andrew Tobin, backed up his five recommendations to the school board from a November 2015 housing report with statistics at the work session on Jan. 19.

“I can’t tell you that 2017-18 will be the deficit year, but it’s becoming more and more likely as we look out ahead that 2017-18, maybe 2018-19, if we don’t get those type of increases, we know our expenses are going to go up, we’re going to certainly be facing it at some point,” Tobin said during the work session.

At the work session the board, along with Grossane, discussed the findings of the housing report that made five recommendations, labeled Options 1 through 5, for money saving measures.

Of the five recommendations, all suggested closing at least one of the district’s eight elementary schools. Grossane’s report said that closing one elementary school would save the district $725,000 annually.

Four of the five options included closing Branch Brook Elementary, which caused an uprising among district parents and started a Save Branch Brook movement that included petitions, Facebook pages, presentations to the school board and matching blue T-shirts.

Meredith Lombardi, a resident in the district, made a heartfelt plea to the board on Tuesday night.

“I was in sixth grade and my school district was redistricted,” Lombardi said. “I was ripped from my school. I was told that I was going to be going to a new one.”

Lombardi expressed a fear of putting her three children through the same experience that she had.

“If you allow one of our schools to close, the children affected will never be the same,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi was one of eight “Save Branch Brook” parents who stepped up to the podium to address the board Tuesday night. Katie Healy was another.

“Branch Brook is our most efficient and cost effective school,” Healy said. “Branch Brook is not the school to close. It is the wrong place and the wrong time. Closing Branch Brook will not solve our district’s problems, it will just add more,” Healy said.

At the time that the recommendations were made, it was unclear what lead Grossane to suggest closing Branch Brook as a course of action. Parents from the Save Branch Brook contingent conducted their own housing-committee-style research and concluded that Branch Brook was the elementary school least deserving of closure based on building occupancy, square foot per student, students per usable classroom and utility cost.

They also offered their own recommendation, Option 6, which suggested that based on their findings Smithtown Elementary was the school that should be closed.

It is now clear what led Grossane to suggest Branch Brook for closure, records showed. The number of elementary school classrooms that feed students to the district’s two high schools must be close.

Currently, the eight elementary schools send 116 classrooms worth of students to Smithtown West when they reach ninth grade and 114 to Smithtown East, according to Grossane.

If Branch Brook were closed and district boundaries were not redrawn, 114 elementary classes would still be fed to East, while 96 would be sent to West.

This is a discrepancy that Grossane is comfortable with. Closing Smithtown Elementary, for example, which was put on the table by the community’s Option 6, would result in 114 elementary classrooms for East and 84 for West.

Grossane said that there would be no choice but to redistrict if that was the option that the board selected.

Additionally, the district needs to select a school for closure that does not leave their potential elementary school capacity vulnerable to growing enrollment. Grossane’s report said that even if the board chose Option 5, which would close Branch Brook and Dogwood Elementary schools, the district would be able to handle roughly 800 additional elementary students on top of the approximately 3,700 elementary school students enrolled for 2015-16 across the eight schools.

Closing one or two elementary schools would obviously increase average class size, though Grossane called instances where any classes would reach a district implemented maximum of 28 students “outliers.”

“Every school has a grade level that runs almost to maximum,” Grossane said at the work session. “If we close a building and we operate with seven, those outliers would smooth out. They’d shift. There would still be an outlier occasionally in every building. I’m not going to tell you there isn’t going to be a class in fifth grade that doesn’t have a 28 at some point within the next six years after we close a building, because there definitely will be. But it’s usually one grade per building. Most times, the class averages even out across the district.”

Members of the school board responded to Grossane’s findings as well as the overwhelming public comments from the previous meetings.

“I have been doing a lot of housing committee work over my time on the board,” Theresa Knox, a trustee on the board of education said on the 19th. “I’ve been through this within my own neighborhood, as many of you know. My children were not affected by the closing of Nesconset, but all of the children on the end of my little dead-end block were. And I have to look at them everyday. And they’re doing great.”

Knox responded to parents concerned about which elementary school their kids would be sent to if closures were carried out. “It had better be, that all of our elementary buildings are fine, educational, welcoming, nurturing, caring places.”

Discussions about the sale and/or repurposing of the district’s administration headquarters on New York Avenue in Smithtown are ongoing as well.

Public comments are not permitted during public work sessions. More debate and eventually a decision are inevitable in the coming weeks.

A date has not yet been selected for a vote on the matter.

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The Smithtown board of education meets on Tuesday night to discuss potential school closures. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Smithtown school district board of education is weighing its options for ways to cut costs, and thus far parents in the district have delivered a clear message: Do not close Branch Brook Elementary School.

In a housing report released in November 2015 by the school board with Superintendent James Grossane’s name on it, the recommended course of action was to close one of the district’s eight elementary schools, specifically Branch Brook.

The report estimated that closing an elementary school would save the district about $725,000 annually, though very little data was provided to back that up. Prior to the 2012 school year, an advisory housing committee was formed and recommended that Nesconset Elementary School be closed, based on substantial data accumulated about the district and the community. Residents accepted the closure.

This time around there is little evidence that any data was used to come to the conclusion that Branch Brook deserves to be closed, according to Peter Troiano, who is a member of the Save Branch Brook group.

The organization is comprised of about three dozen parents, Troiano said in a phone interview last week, but a look at the group’s Facebook page or their petition showed support in the hundreds.

“I’m not a PTA dad, I’m not involved in the schools,” Troiano said. “When I saw this proposal I knew right away looking at it that it doesn’t make sense.” Troiano said that he’s never a fan of closing schools, though he understood the necessity to close Nesconset a few years ago based on the data and research provided by the district.

The overwhelming sentiment from the Save Branch Brook parents at the meetings has been to ask for another housing committee to be assembled, and the same due diligence done as was done prior to 2012’s closure. A housing committee was assembled in 2014 to assess the feasibility of closing another elementary school, but no specific one was chosen, Annemarie Vinas, a member of that housing committee said at Tuesday night’s board meeting. Vinas contended that none of their findings would lead them to suggest Branch Brook be closed, but that is what the board recommended anyway.

“No one wants to close a school,” Grossane said in an interview following Tuesday’s meeting. “We need to be fiscally responsible. The board asked me to look at the results [of the housing committee’s findings]. These were my suggestions. The board is listening to the community. It’s their decision. I’m not sure where they’re going to go.”

Grossane declined to get any more specific than that prior to the Jan. 19 public work session for the school board, which will be their first chance to address the specific questions and concerns that the community has presented since November.

Since that November 2015 school board meeting that made it evident closing Branch Brook was on the table for the board, very little else has emerged as a topic of conversation at multiple school board meetings, workshops and hearings.

The Save Branch Brook parents came armed not only with matching blue T-shirts sporting the group name, but also with substantial statistical data.

Parents involved in the Save Branch Brook movement who wish to remain anonymous who are also analysts put together their own presentation for the board ahead of the December 2015 meeting. Entitled “Quantitative Analysis of Smithtown Elementary School Information,” the report concluded that Branch Brook was the elementary school that made the least sense of the eight to close based on the following factors: projected enrollment decrease over the next 10 years; building occupancy; square foot per student; students per usable classroom; and utility cost.

Another area of contention is the New York Avenue district office building. The housing committee that condemned Nesconset Elementary also suggested that this building be sold, and another space in a school in the district be used for the school board. To date that has not happened, though Grossane said at Tuesday night’s meeting that the board is working with the community on a way to repurpose the building and move to save costs.

The debate seems to be just getting started, though more will be clear following the work session on Jan. 19.

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