Less than one week after a 16-year-old girl was shot near the school's grounds, the Huntington school board voted to scrap a plan to move sixth-graders to Jack Abrams Intermediate School this fall.
The razor-thin 4-3 vote was going to have its detractors, said Bill Dwyer, the president of the Huntington Union Free School District's Board of Education.
"None of us want to be here this evening because no matter what we decide half of the room is going to leave angry," said Dwyer, one of four to vote in favor of the measure, which shifts the sixth-graders to Woodhull Intermediate School.
Dwyer was joined by board Vice President John Paci III, Elizabeth Black and Richard McGrath. Trustees Christine Bene, Kimberly Brown and Emily Rogan fought the shutdown.
"It is wrong to close a school," Rogan said. "I don't think fear should push us to make this decision."
The district's new configuration will have kindergarten through fourth-graders disbursed throughout the four primary schools – Flower Hill, Washington, Southdown and Jefferson – while its fifth- and sixth-graders will all attend Woodhull Intermediate School. Finley Middle School and Huntington High School will not be affected by the reconfiguration.
"We just abandoned half of the community – Huntington Station. We just abandoned Huntington Station completely," said Rebecca Sanin, who organized a rally prior to the emergency meeting where close to 100 residents showed their support to keep Jack Abrams open. "We just told our community that the Board of Education and the Huntington School District thinks that safety is OK for some, but not for all. It says that some people have a right to safety but not everybody."
On April 19, the school board previously voted 4-3 to send all fourth- and fifth-graders to Woodhull in September, with all sixth-graders attending Jack Abrams. Instead, all fourth-graders will back in the primary schools and fifth- and sixth-graders will attend Woodhull together.
Jack Abrams Intermediate School will in turn be used solely for administrative purposes, tutoring and adult education. There is the possibly of it housing an alternative high school for the Huntington School District, although that seems to be a few years down the road.
Sanin said she was shocked by the board's decision and is disgusted by the possibility of an alternative high school at Abrams. "If you look at alternative high schools, it's always more minority based, so the statement really is that it's OK for some people to be in this building but not for everybody and that's disgusting," Sanin said. "For those who voted for closing the school, as far as I'm concerned, they didn't hold up their oath today because they didn't do right by every child and that was what they swore to do."
Of the four board members who voted to make Abrams a sixth-grade center in the spring, Dwyer swung Monday's vote to remove the children altogether. He said it was no easy decision, but that something had to be done to keep the district's children safe.
"We've worked very long, very hard," Dwyer said after the meeting. "I have put in a lot of time with Town Hall, with the county, and they've given us all kind, nice words. Yet we have a police relief station here and a child gets shot. What more can we do?"
Black, who voted along with Dwyer, Paci and McGrath, said she hopes the board's decision will start to move Huntington Station in the right direction.
"I think it's the beginning of time to hopefully rid this area of violence, because it's been too long," Black said. "Revitalization has been talked about for 10 years and it hasn't happened."
She added that while the auditorium, filled to its 492 person capacity, was clearly divided that elected officials at the Town and County levels need to take the next step. "Now I hope that everyone gets on board," Black said. "We can only make this decision, but we will get together with the Town Council, and hopefully we can make it safer for the kids to one day go to school here again."
Members of the school board said the Town and County have not met their obligations to the keep area around the school safe. But Town of Huntington Councilwoman Susan Berland said the Town wants to and needs to work hand and hand with the Board of Education to make that area a safer place to work, live and educate our children.
"As far as the Town is concerned, it is still my intention to do everything I can to make Huntington Station safer," Berland said. "We will work with the school board to make sure the children are protected and that all the residents of the Town of Huntington are protected. And I will continue to work with all the residents to make sure that happens."
Legis. Jon Cooper, D-Lloyd Harbor, said he was shocked that the decision was made without the opportunity for public comment.
"There were a lot of people prepared to advocate one way or the other and are very disappointed that they were not given that opportunity," Cooper said. "That being said, there are no bad people in this, regardless of how the folks voted on the school board – the four that voted to close the school and the three that voted against it, I know that they all have the safety of the kids at heart."
Cooper added that something needs to be done now.
"Whether I'm talking about the safety of the children that go to Jack Abrams or the safety of the folks that live in the community surrounding Jack Abrams, as a county elected official, my ultimate responsibility is to ensure that there are adequate police resources devoted to dealing with street crime and gang-related violence in this area," Cooper explained. "The problem is what to do to deal with crime immediately and that's why I am calling for the police commissioner and the county executive to authorize police overtime so we can get more cops on foot patrol and bike patrol immediately. ... It looks as if it's too late to keep the kids at Jack Abrams, but I am equally focused on protecting the safety of those folks that live in the area surrounding Jack Abrams, so that hasn't changed."
While Sanin and many others in attendance were outraged that they never got the opportunity to voice their opinion, she said that it seemed as if the decision was made before the hour-and-a-half meeting even began.
"People came out, they weren't heard, there was no public commentary. ... Absolutely no one was heard," Sanin said. "The board made a decision that affects the entire school district having not had time to examine the plans that they were making a decision based on. I think it was an example of the democratic process not being served. And to think that our Board of Education made this decision today, I have never felt so ashamed to live in this community."