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Dogwood

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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.

The Kousa dogwood fruit has a surprising sweet tropical flavor. Stock photo

By Ellen Barcel

Well, it’s finally winter with real winter weather. However, I just heard on the news that the first hurricane of 2016 has formed — yes, I know they don’t normally start until June 1 and the last time a hurricane formed in January was in 1938. According to CNN, it’s only the fourth known hurricane to arrive in January since records have been kept starting in 1851. Weather has been really weird this past year. The cherry tree I wrote about in December was still blooming on January 1. It will be interesting to see what spring brings.

Passionflower vines produce fruit late in the growing season. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Passionflower vines produce fruit late in the growing season. Photo by Ellen Barcel

Well, now that the cold weather is finally here (sort of), we can’t really do much in the way of gardening, except, perhaps repair some tools or clean out the garage. But, it is a great time to put your feet up by the fireplace, look out the window at the snow outside, leaf through the gardening catalogues which invariably come this time of year and plan your new garden. Perhaps you wish to make some jams or jellies from produce in your garden but want to focus on landscaping plants. Here are some possibilities. All make unique jellies and jams.

Kousa dogwood
Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), Japanese dogwood, is sometimes recommended as a replacement for our local dogwood (C. florida), since it is more resistant to a tree blight, anthracnose, which can kill our local species. One of the nice things about Kousa dogwood is that the fruit is edible and can be used to make jelly — I’ve tasted it and it really is good. There are a number of recipes online. The berries can also be used to make muffins. The tree does well in our acidic soil and produces beautiful white flowers in spring. It’s a small tree so won’t take over your landscaping.

Beautyberry
Like the Kousa dogwood, the beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) bush is deciduous. It is known for its brightly colored purple berries that can remain on the plant into winter providing winter interest. The berries, which have a metallic luster, will be eaten by birds, but they don’t appear to be their favorite food. Squirrels, raccoons and other small animals seem to enjoy them. The berries are edible and can be used to make jelly.

Beautyberry produces berries in the summer, but the berries stay on the plant even when leaves have fallen and winter snows fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel
Beautyberry produces berries in the summer, but the berries stay on the plant even when leaves have fallen and winter snows fall. Photo by Ellen Barcel

I planted the bush just because I like the look of the berries. The plant can grow four to eight feet tall and about as wide. It prefers light shade and a well-drained soil. This is not a problem with Long Island’s generally sandy soil. While the plant can be a specimen plant, a row of them makes an interesting, informal hedge. Remember, however, that since it is deciduous, the screening benefits will only be provided during the growing season. While it is mildly drought tolerant, it does need about an inch of water a week. So, if we go for more than a week or so without rain, water should be supplemented.

Passionflowers
Passionflowers are native to both the Americas and Asia, there being in the neighborhood of 500 species in the genus. Most have edible fruit that can be made into jelly. The vines, depending on variety, can grow up to 30 feet tall, so this is a plant that needs a trellis of some sort or can be grown as a trailing plant in a hanging basket. The flowers of Passiflora incarnata are exotic in appearance. Generally, they are purple, but some are purple and white. P. alata ‘Ruby Glow’ is purple and dark maroon — absolutely gorgeous. The plant is hardy in zones 5 to 9, and does best in full to partial sun.

Yes, there are a number of other landscaping plants that can be used to yield jelly, such as roses and sunflowers. You can also use the flowers of Queen Anne’s lace and dandelions. Remember to always check out whether the flower you are interested in is edible. If in doubt, don’t consume it.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions and/or comments to [email protected] To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.