The Northport Board of Education voted to study the possible closing of Northport Middle School Thursday night at a packed meeting that was filled with suspicion, demands, tears, insults about a lack of intelligence, courage, and even a challenge to manhood.
The vote came near the end of the five-hour meeting and added the status of the school to the agenda of the SES Study team, a group of more than 40 members led by facilitator Dr. Paul M. Seversky. It is assessing the district’s future needs in the face of a possible negative LIPA decision, declining enrollment and other issues.
Environmental experts from PW Grosser Consulting Inc., testified that it found evidence Monday of mercury that far exceeded levels that would require action to identify the source and eliminate the chemical. Members gasped at the finding, of 632 parts per million, with a Suffolk County standard for action at 3.7. The mercury was found in a leaching pool outside the building on Monday, leading the school to close one classroom, and continue to not use two others. The board issued a letter Thursday, saying no mercury had been found in the building.
The source of the mercury is a key question. When PW Grosser experts mentioned the possibility of it coming from thermometers broken and sent down the drain of a science classroom, others, including a former science teacher who taught in the room, disputed that, saying any equipment that involved mercury had long ago been turned in. The Grosser team went through an explanation of the different types of mercury that might be found, the risk associated with each kind. Parents were especially concerned that the level of mercury had vastly increased since a study in 2001 that led to remediation of soil from the leaching pool.
The three PWG experts testified to the next steps it will take, including tests on Saturday. While testing is continuing, they said that so far, they had not found levels of chlordane that required action, had not found mold or other problems that many residents believe are responsible for the headaches, nausea and serious illnesses children and staff have reported over the years.
When board president David Badanes asked the PWG team, if, they were parents, and based on their findings so far, would they allow their children to attend the school, Heather Moran-Botta replied yes, but grew teary-eyed as members of the audience challenged him and demanded that he not ask personal questions of them.
Numerous parents went to the lectern to insist that the school be closed, demand to know what emergency plans were in place should the school have to close, ask where the board stood on a possible closing, and challenged Superintendent Robert Banzer and the board in personal terms. One man who insisted multiple times that wasn’t confrontational, questioned Banzer’s courage and manhood, and told the board they were ignorant. At another point, at least two people rushed to the lectern and directed questions to the experts over the board’s objections because they weren’t scheduled to speak.
When Badanes said he had heard from a lot of people in the community who opposed closing the school without better scientific reason to do so, audience members shouted out, “Where are they?” Badanes replied that the others were afraid they would be attacked if they came to meetings, provoking more outrage. “What are we, animals?” one man shouted.
Some parents want children moved out of the school while testing is completed, at a minimum.
How and who received information on Monday about the mercury finding also was the subject of complaints. Some felt that the information should have first gone to a sub-committee tasked with handling the concerns because they felt the district couldn’t be trusted. Banzer insisted it was his responsibility to act quickly to remove students from the affected classroom to maintain their safety. Others questioned the Grosser representatives about whether they had been refused access to any area for testing or told to ignore anything. They insisted they had not.
Some parents are maintaining lists of students and teachers who have developed cancer or other serious diseases.