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Fear and Loathing Pervades Discussion of Districting Vote at Half Hollow Hills BOE Meeting

What was I doing here? What was the meaning of this trip? Was I just roaming around in a post-commute frenzy of some kind? Or had I really come out here to Half Hollow Hills to work on a story? Who are these people, these faces? Where do they come from? They look like caricatures of used car dealers from Centereach, and sweet Jesus, there were a hell of a lot of them at 9:30 on a Monday night, still humping the American dream, that vision of the big winner somehow emerging from the polling station with four representatives on the town board all protecting their interests. (apologies to Raoul Duke)

Monday evening, the VT travelled south through Huntington Village, south past Jericho Turnpike, south past Walt Whitman Mall, south past the Northern State Parkway and south some more.  The destination, Half Hollow Hills Administrative Center is 20 minutes from Huntington Village and the location of last night’s Half Hollow Hills Board of Education  meeting.  You can cover a lot of territory and never leave Huntington Township.

While not exactly countryside, Half Hollow Hills is, by Long Island standards, low density suburbia set in those beautiful namesake hills and the home of a great school system.

Monday’s board meeting kicked off promptly with about 150 in attendance listening closely to presentations by HHH High School students and their instructors who have been named semi-finalists in the Siemens Math : Science : Technology competition.  http://www.siemens-foundation.org/en/competition.htm

For this veteran of Huntington BOE meetings, it was like being airlifted out of Saigon circa 1975 and being dropped in present-day Phuket.  The scenery was similar, but everything else couldn’t have been more different.  Instead of discussing gang wars, shoot – outs and student safety at Jack Abrams Intermediate, the discussion was focused on outstanding students, their instructors and the awesome work they are doing in those top-notch HHH schools.  For those of you keeping score at home, six HHH students were named semi-finalists and the results are symmetrical too: three from HHH East and three from HHH West. Well done HHH!  As for Huntington which doesn’t have any Siemens semi-finalists this year; maybe once the issue of whether JAI should function as a police changing station is resolved, there will be time to foster this type of academic pursuit.

Emotions swung rapidly from self-congratulatory to just plain scared when it was time to discuss the upcoming election on whether Huntington Township should be divided into districts, each with an elected councilperson.  The HHH BOE had allowed the HHH PTA to distribute a flyer on the BOE website and sent a printed version home with each of the kids proclaiming that council districting “threatens Half Hollow Hills”.  Several in the audience questioned the board about whether it was appropriate for the board to use school district resources to take a position on a town political issue. The board gave a variety of answers ranging from “no taxpayer dollars were spent” to “it is important for the community and the board to become educated on this issue prior to the vote”.

The board acknowledged knowing that the flyer was being printed and distributed using school district facilities and seemed untroubled by their own admission that they needed to spend more time understanding the issue yet without a thorough understanding of the issue worked with the PTA to denounce districting as a threat.

The majority in attendance were there because of the incendiary PTA flyer and opposed to the districting proposal.  Lead by Jean Varrone, Sheila Sachs, Alissa Taff and Ken Christiansen districting opponents repeated the concerns that the PTA articulated in their flyer; namely that residents would lose power in moving from a system where HHH residents share four representatives with the rest of the town to a new structure with a single representative for each of four township subdistricts.  The frantic PTA document is still available on HHH’s school district site here:

http://www.halfhollowhills.k12.ny.us/uploaded/User%5FFolders%2Fsupersecy1/councilmanic_districts_final3n12.pdf

In addition to concerns about the impact districting would have on HHH, opponents accused Mark Cronin and Concerned Citizens of Huntington, the group backing districting, of having a political agenda to elect unelectable candidates, of gaming the timing of the vote, of misrepresenting the satisfaction of other towns who have made the change to districting, of turning neighbor against neighbor and wanting to take away the Dix Hills ice rink.  Opponents of districting stopped short of declaring Cronin to be Satan’s only child.

Cronin took two turns at the dais and addressed the concerns and charges being made by individuals opposed to districting.   Districting opponents raised no new factual ground Monday night, CCH’s case and response to the concerns raised by districting opponents is documented in detail on the CCH website:

http://concernedcitizensofhuntington.com/default.aspx

As the evening wound down, HHH PTA President Beth Slattery delivered an emotional speech decrying districting as an agenda being forced on HHH by outsiders who would like to see the town divided and the school system suffer as a result.

As The VT drove north out of those pretty hills it was clear that HHH residents have a top-notch school system, probably due in no small part to the community that supports it.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is generally good advice.  On the other hand, why was there such a visceral reaction to a proposal that represents change but which few at the meeting understood in enough detail to discuss fact by fact?   Why does the HHH BOE say they have no position, yet distribute an inflammatory PTA flyer?  Cronin and CCH present a well-reasoned and logical argument for districting.  Their opponents reply with innuendo and emotional pleas that don’t appear to have the same logical, fact-based integrity.    Are these people afraid of breaking a good school, or just afraid?

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