According To Stay, Sixth Graders Can’t Stay

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State rules that Berner move must proceed

Trustee Joseph LaBella (second from left) had to face questions as to why he reneged on his word to support a public vote in January 2018. (Photos by Joseph Catrone)

No matter how old a child is upon entering middle school, it is usually thought to be an important transition in their lives, one in which they abandon slides and teeter-totters in favor of lockers and higher-level studies. But one teeter-totter that’s proven tough for Massapequa residents of all ages to leave behind is the proposed sixth-grade move to Berner Middle School, which as of the board of education’s Aug. 3 meeting, will once again commence this fall—maybe.

According to a statement read at the meeting by Board President Timothy Taylor, New York State Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia issued a stay, mandating that the board refrains from forcing the district’s sixth-graders from remaining in elementary school, a decision which the board had reached on July 13 by a vote of 3-2, effectively representing a reversal from the decision reached at a June 15 meeting which stated that the current sixth-grade class would move up and a public vote would be held in January 2018 to decide whether future sixth-grade classes would attend Berner.

However, Taylor went on to state that the board would be exploring “all of our legal options,” which District Clerk Anne Marie Bellizzi clarified could entail filing an Article 78 proceeding to challenge Elia’s decision in court. Taylor nonetheless conceded that, for the moment, sixth-graders are slated to attend Berner in the fall. But the board president’s repeated mention of exploring legal options did much to cast doubt upon the finality of the state’s decision, and several attendees appeared dissatisfied with the board’s seemingly noncommittal answer to the evening’s most popular question.

Former trustee Jane Ryan asked the board to honor the stay.

“The school opens in five weeks. Shouldn’t we know where [the kids] are going?” asked Rose Stein, who has been one of the more vocal community members in favor of the Berner move. “I’m under the impression that when the New York State commissioner rules a stay, that the board of education should respect that and follow her recommendation, which in our case is to move forward with the move to Berner.”

“When you say you’re exploring legal recourse, my son doesn’t understand that and I don’t understand that,” added Massapequa resident Teresa Bowen.

The issue of whether sixth grade should be part of middle school has divided parents in the community, and in the past several months, petitions in support of and against the Berner move have both gained traction. Several residents against the move have questioned whether this year’s graduating class of fifth-graders is truly ready for the responsibilities of middle school. One of the night’s attendees disclosed that her granddaughter hopes to stay at Birch Lane Elementary for sixth grade, while another attendee, Greg Green, opined that the district hadn’t done enough to prepare the students for the move.

“These kids changed classes for two weeks. These kids are not prepared to go to Berner, I’m sorry,” Green said, adding that the extent to which the debate has divided the community is “embarrassing.”

Still others claimed that their kids were excited at the prospect of changing classes, using lockers and learning a foreign language. Furthermore, several parents noted that reversing the move would force the district to excess several of their new hires.

“You all approved staff—unanimously approved staff—and that’s what I don’t understand. If you were against the move, why did you approve hires for the move?” asked Melissa McSherry, who went on to question whether each board member had genuinely voted their convictions. “I’ve been on the board before, and when I was against something, even if everyone else agreed with it, I still voted no. I didn’t vote along with everyone and say, ‘oh well, I’m not the majority.’”

Melissa McSherry asked Tim Taylor why the board approved hires for the Berner move if they weren’t going to support it.

“My position was, if I couldn’t stop it, I wanted it done the best way possible,” Taylor countered. “The fact of the matter is, this was an item that there was no common ground. It was either [people] were [for it], or they weren’t. So it was divisive by nature. There’s really no room for compromise with this issue.”

Yet, as several parents were quick to remind, compromise had been the proposed course of action following the June 15 meeting, when the board opted to let the incoming sixth-grade class attend Berner and hold a public vote in January 2018 to decide whether future sixth-grade classes would follow suit. One resident implicated trustee Joseph LaBella for going back on his word to allow for the compromise. LaBella, along with Taylor and Brian Butler, voted to reverse the move and effectively end the compromise at the July 13 meeting but, unlike Taylor and Butler, had gone on record saying he would support the result of the public vote.

“You actually told me… that you never really changed your mind that you were against it,” the resident said to Labella. “However, you came up with that compromise because there was simply not enough time to do it correctly and reverse it. So I would like to know from you, how 30 days [after that meeting], you chose to go forward [with the reversal], when in June, you already thought it wasn’t enough time.”

“Because of the time constraints and because of the friction in the community, I was trying to find a happy medium,” LaBella said, noting that he regretted that decision almost immediately. “When I saw that my compromise didn’t bring the people together, I stuck with what I always believed—that the kids should be in grade school.”

The repeated criticisms leveled at board members for changing their minds culminated in a direct appeal from former trustee Jane Ryan, who completed her term on the board on June 30. Ryan, now in the role of concerned community member, pleaded with her ex-peers to refrain from challenging Elia’s stay, and said of her new view of the board’s proceedings from the outside looking in, “I’ve had no rest since July 13.”

“It’s not if you’re for or against it—it doesn’t matter. To do what you did is very irresponsible,” Ryan said. “Do you realize that this is the fifth time the children are being told where to go [to school]? How can you do that to children? Let the community heal. Let [the move] go forward.”

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Joseph Catrone is the former editor of Farmingdale Observer, Hicksville News, Levittown Tribune and Massapequa Observer. He is also a contributing writer to Long Island Weekly and Anton Media Group's special sections.

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