Frank P. future uncertain
More than 200 parents, teachers and concerned residents packed Bellport High School auditorium on the evening of Wednesday, July 26, expecting to hear a board decision on Frank P. Long Intermediate School. But many left feeling disappointed after the nearly three-hour meeting adjourned with no clear answer.
Parents again took to the public comment portion to voice their concerns about their children attending the school, some vowing to keep their kids home on the first day of school, should Frank. P. Long open in September.
Several parents read aloud signed letters from their children’s doctors. In one, physician assistant Joanna Tutrone notes that, “Interestingly, the wind was blowing away from the school and the landfill the day the [Enviroscience testing] was done.” Tutrone adds that she recently drove to the school to get a better idea of where the school is situated. “I honestly cannot believe it has been allowed to operate this long. What is even more bothersome is the Martha Avenue playground and sports fields that are located even closer to the landfill than the school ... My professional opinion is that these children are being put in harm’s way by continuing to have them attend this school in its current location.”
The wind conditions during tests continue to be a source of contention, especially for environmentalist Adrienne Esposito. She blasted Enviroscience for not testing under ideal wind conditions. “If you’re going to capture emissions, wind must be blowing toward the school,” she said. The tests show wind conditions to be blowing north and northwest during the tests. “That was a common sense thing that they missed.”
Enviroscience CEO Glenn Neuschwender defended those test results, claiming the firm didn’t “have the luxury” of picking the wind conditions. Esposito and Neuschwender also disagreed over traces of benzene that were found at the school in tests from 2016. At the meeting, Neuschwender claimed that benzene could not be traced back to the landfill.
Esposito claimed the DEC admitted to this in a meeting she attended with community members and teachers back in February 2016. At that meeting, test results were reviewed and showed VOCs were found at both the landfill and Frank P. Long School in December 2015 and January 2016. SUMMA Canister results obtained by this newspaper through a Freedom of Information Law request show that benzene was detected downwind north of Frank P. Long School on Dec. 8, 2015 at a level of 0.38 ug/?, above the state DEC’s annual guideline concentration of 0.13 ug/?. Tests at the same location on Jan. 8, 2016 show benzene detected at 1.1 ug/?. On both testing dates, the wind direction was north, coming from the direction of the landfill.
The DEC concluded, “Low levels of VOCs were detected. On-site and off-site detections are correlated, indicating the landfill to be the primary source.” Esposito took photos of the PowerPoint slide for proof; representatives from the DEC did not respond to requests for confirmation by press time.
The town remains confident that the landfill is not to blame for the string of health issues found in the surrounding Bellport community. They have capped nearly 70 percent of the landfill and are on track for closure in eight years.
The board remains stalled on making a decision in time for September. Board of education president Cheryl Felice noted that they are still gathering information and are awaiting final test results before making a decision. “There’s nothing definitive as of yet,” Felice said, noting the board is evaluating test results as they come in —something they can only do in public due to the open meeting law. “I was very pleased with the comments from the parents,” she said in an interview earlier this week. “It’s important that the board gets a true understanding as to what the concerns are of parents and if any children are experiencing ill effects. We want to be aware of everything.”
Felice declined to comment on the future of Frank P. Long, but said that one priority is preserving the learning environment for students, since it’s the first time students from all elementary schools come together in one place.
It’s a decision that newly elected trustee Jack Nix understands can be emotional. In June, he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer after doing a “random health screening” through his job at the South Country Library. After a surprising diagnosis, Nix was treated at Sloan Kettering in Manhattan and is now cancer-free. “I understand the emotions behind this serious issue, and I also understand it physically,” he said in a closing statement Wednesday night.
Nix told the Advance that while he has suspicions that the cause could be environmental, knee-jerk reactions are irresponsible. “A neighbor of mine approached me, concerned that there is a cancer cluster in my neighborhood caused by the sump in our dead-end,” he explained. Nix said he has contacted Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue) about the issue in his East Patchogue neighborhood, and hopes to find results soon.
Some parents are already threatening to keep their kids out of Frank P. Long, regardless of what the final test results show. Bellport Village resident Thomas Schultz said he was hesitant about allowing his daughter into the school. “The suspicion that there is something festering in that building should be strong enough to condemn the building,” Schultz said, adding that county, state and federal funding could help offset the expenditure should the board call for an emergency. “I’m fighting for my daughter, but I have an alternative. There are people in this school district that don’t have those alternatives that I have. So I’m fighting for those children and those families, too.”
Several parents explained that they have no other option but to send their children to school, citing work schedules and the great expense of private or homeschooling. “This issue is widening the divide of the haves and have-nots,” said former board member Danielle Skelly in an interview last week. “A small percentage of the community has the means for private school. What about the families who live in the community in proximity to the landfill and other facilities who are renting, on Section 8 or using social services? It’s a socioeconomic issue.”
Adele Michelsen agrees. She homeschooled her daughter, who experienced major health issues, including seizures, as a Frank P. Long student. It wasn’t until Michelsen heard the news reports earlier this spring that she began to wonder if her daughter’s ailments could be associated with the school building. “We thought it was anxiety,” she explained.
She attended the meeting last week, but admitted she was not expecting the board to come to a decision. “For single parents and families that can’t afford private school, they’re stuck,” Michelsen said. “They have to go with whatever the board decides.”
Skelly added that she’s frustrated that the issue has fallen on the school board to tackle, citing a high number of contaminated Brownfield properties in the area as well. “The board is being asked to do something that isn’t going to remediate health problems in the rest of the community,” she said. “A lot of the kids live north of the tracks and can still smell the dump from home. There’s not a bubble around Frank P. Long.”
As a former board member, she knows what a tough decision the board faces. “It’s not something they’re taking lightly. My daughter will be there on the first day of school,” Skelly said. “And we’ll deal with whatever happens.”
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