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Forest Hills new schools draw debate

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The concern is that two 500-seat high schools slated for the Metropolitan Avenue site that sits on the cusp of two districts would be rezoned to host exclusively local students or be termed "theme" institutions, which would permit open enrollment.Area civic leaders and elected officials say that admitting students from all parts of the city would somewhat defeat the original purpose behind the project -- to provide a school for the young residents living near the site who now have to commute 40 minutes to Hillcrest High School in Fresh Meadows. Nearby Forest Hills High School is already overcrowded."Calling kids to Hillcrest means losing hours a day that should be used studying or doing extracurricular activities," said Barbara Stuchinski, of the Forest Hills Community & Civic Association. A disquieted crowd at Community Board 6's Feb. 9 meeting insisted to a city Department of Education official that open enrollment under a theme school, such as communications or technology, would put those students in competition with thousands of others throughout the city. Two 630-seat K-8 schools are also planned for the vast tree-filled lot, which broadens behind Metropolitan Avenue where 69th Avenue dead-ends. Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) said they would be zoned by the local Community Education Council. But a decision to zone the high schools Ð one of which would sit in District 28 with its neighbor situated in Ridgewood's District 24 Ð rests with the city's Department of Education. The DOE has promised additional seats in Forest Hills but could not guarantee they would be reserved for students within the district, Katz said. She added that her office has been wrangling constantly with the department despite a longtime agreement she said was supposed to ensure that the schools would serve local students. "These schools were meant to do that from way back," said the councilwoman, who first began lobbying for the schools eight years ago when the site was originally intended to house a large movie theater. DOE spokeswoman Alicia Maxey said the plans were still being worked out and she could not comment. At the meeting, another frequent objection voiced involved the proposed building of two more elementary schools when Forest Hills already has PS 144 and 101. Stuchinski and others stressed that a new middle school was in much higher demand. The city, however, is not constructing any more middle schools, according to the Department of Education.Concerns about the project, ranging from the number of schools to site contamination, have continued to swell ever since the DOE bought the site from the Forrest City Ratner developers two years ago. The Department of Environmental Conservation began a cleanup of the property last summer after a test found that groundwater 65 feet below ground was contaminated by a drainage leak years ago when an HJ Heinz Co. warehouse was there. The remediation was expected to take 18 to 24 months, according to the DEC, which could overlap with the start of construction in September. Despite the concerns, most community members seem to support the building of the schools. "We want these schools, we're not looking to sabotage this idea," said JR Nocerino, community affairs liaison for PS 144. He has two grade school children he said he hoped would one day attend the new and closer high school. "It's just that they need to be done right, meaning clean ground and zoned for our area," he said.Reach reporter Zach Patberg by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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