As is routine on any given school day, parents lined up early on a recent sunny morning in front of picturesque Nesconset Elementary to drop their children off for class. The century-old schoolhouse with bright, white columns sits snugly on an idyllic, tree-lined side street and is home to 342 students, ranging from tiny kindergarteners to feisty fifth graders.
Inside, student-made Valentines adorn classroom doorways. Bright murals plaster the ceilings and walls. “We must begin with the children” is scrawled above an arch in the main hallway in big block red-and-yellow lettering.
The scene could have been pulled from a page in a children’s book.
“We moved into the area because it’s a good school, it’s close by, we love all the teachers,” says Joanna, who declined to give her last name, as she dropped off her son.
Yet big changes could be afoot for the hundreds of children, parents, teachers and administrators who call the quaint, storybook school home. A proposal to close Nesconset Elementary is under consideration by the Smithtown School District Board of Education and could soon bring an end to the long-held academic tradition here as budget constraints and population shifts bring an unwelcome lesson in pragmatism.
“He’s upset, but he’s going to be with his friends, who will make the change easier,” says Joanna, who’s burdened by the stress of uncertainty regarding its potential closure. “I’m wondering how they’re going to start this in September.”
The sentiment is shared by other parents parading past the school in the morning kiddie-drop-off ritual that may be no more.
“I’m concerned about my kids losing relationships with their friends,” says another mother, Tracy, as she waves goodbye to her pony-tailed daughter clad in pink. “But I’m more sad that teachers are losing their jobs, and class sizes are going to change, of course. And it’s sad because it has been great for us here, and now things might change for everyone.”
The students and faculty at Nesconset are not alone. It is one of at least 12 elementary schools on Long Island—six public and six parochial—that are either slated for or being considered for closure at the end of this school year, with more rumored to be on the chopping block as budget season kicks into gear. School administrators in each case blame a combination of less school aid, New York State’s recently enacted 2-percent property tax cap and declining student enrollment. Parents, teachers and children who’ve taken to the streets in protest wonder aloud what the shuttered schools will mean for their communities.
More often than not, the rallies turn into little more than a lesson in how to make clever picket line chants, however. Between 2008 and 2009, 210 schools closed nationwide, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Education report that uses the most recent statistics available. There isn’t a bake sale big enough to fill the multi-million-dollar holes in these school budgets.
“One of the more heart-wrenching and difficult decisions that a board has to wrestle with is the closing or changing the structure of a community’s elementary school in particular,” says Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association. “Communities have an emotional attachment to their schools, which has made Long Island schools so successful.”
Those emotions have been flowing just as freely at Jacob Gunther Elementary School in North Bellmore and at Paul E. Kidahry and Westbrook elementary schools in West Islip—three that school boards have already voted to close. On Jan. 25, Baldwin residents rallied against a similar proposal before their school board to close Shubert and either Milburn or Steele elementary.
The dozen schools moving toward closure in Nassau and Suffolk counties are not the first ones since the Great Recession wreaked havoc on municipal budgets. The Lawrence School District closed one of its elementary schools in 2009, Bower Elementary School in Lindenhurst closed in 2010, and Cross Street Elementary School in Mineola closed last year. So did 134-year-old Stella Maris Regional School in Sag Harbor—the oldest Catholic school on Long Island. Not that precedent eases the pain.
“It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish,” says Dominick Bove, who has spoken out at his local board of education meetings against the closure of Gunther in North Bellmore, where his daughter is a student. “These kids are devastated. Gunther is their home.”