Trustee seeks to end waivers

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The last few minutes of the Valley Stream Central High School District’s June 12 Board of Education meeting were tense, as Trustee Armando Hernandez surprised fellow board members with a motion to revoke the district’s decades-old school-choice

policy.

“The school attendance policy, or the waiver policy as it is known as, originally sought to boost enrollment at North High School,” Hernandez said at the meeting. “Our enrollment numbers prove that North no longer needs such help. That being the one and only specific reason that is known for this policy causes me to question why we have the policy on the books.”

District 24 Trustee John Maier seconded the motion. “I wanted to hear what he has to say and look into it a little further,” Maier told the Herald.

He also had issues with Superintendent Bill Heidenreich’s final recommendations to revise the policy. These were adapted from ones submitted earlier in the year by a Citizens Advisory Committee that consisted of parents from all three elementary school districts, who met for several months to consider ways to improve the school-choice process. The policy is cited by some parents as one of the main causes of perceived overcrowding at North High School.

One recommendation, opposed by several trustees at last week’s meeting, would have approved all waivers until a school reached 90 percent of its functional capacity — defined as the number of students who can pursue a full range of educational activities comfortably, given the building’s square footage. Maier and board President Bill Stris argued that the percentage should be lowered to conform to New York state education law, according to which a school is considered “crowded” at 85 percent of functional capacity.

“I am not happy with 90 percent,” Stris said. “But I will vote for this because it’s a package.”

Hernandez said that he thought the committee’s recommendations helped but did not think the school-choice policy was necessary. “I really looked at that policy, and whenever someone asked me what the purpose of the policy is, there’s no good answer,” he said.

Maier, Hernandez and Trustee Lisa Pellicane were the only three who voted against approving the superintendent’s recommendations. After the board voted on the recommendations, Hernandez brought forth his proposal to revoke the school-choice policy.

The policy has been on the books since 1967. It allows students who are zoned for one high school to waive into another one in the district. It has been revised several times, most recently in 2009. Hernandez said that it was originally started to boost enrollment at North High School, which was in danger at the time of being defunded due to low enrollment.

“I think that over the years, it’s done its job,” Hernandez said. “It’s boosted enrollment, and I think it’s gone too far.”

In November, an architect told the Citizens Advisory Committee that North High School’s current occupancy was at 88 percent of its functional capacity, which seemed to confirm parents’ claims that the junior-senior high school was overcrowded.

Rich Adams, president of the Valley Stream Teachers’ Association, told the Herald in September that signs of overcrowding could be observed. “I’ve heard from some teachers at North that are concerned about their class size,” he said.

Adams noted that teachers occasionally have to cycle through, or share, a single classroom throughout the day at North, and that they have said there is a lack of office space. Changes in the student population across the district have also caused teachers to be split between buildings, which can inhibit their ability to offer extra help.

When the proposal to scrap the policy came to a vote, however, only the three trustees from District 24 voted to revoke the school-choice policy, and Stris tabled discussion on the proposal. “You just cannot, out of the blue, make a motion to turn everything over that’s been in effect for so many years,” he said.

Stris said the board would not discuss the recommendation to revoke the policy at its next board meeting on July 10, because that is a reorganization meeting. Not all of the current members of Central High School District’s Board of Education may serve next year, since they are chosen from among the elementary districts’ board members. Those choices have yet to be made.