Heritage Heights Elementary School will not be closing next fall.
In a 5-2 vote Tuesday evening accompanied by cheers from an overflow crowd of school supporters, the Sweet Home Central School District Board of Education turned down a recommendation to eliminate the school at 2545 Sweet Home Road in Amherst’s North End and send the students to the district’s three other elementary schools.
The board then unanimously passed a motion added late to the agenda by member Michael F. Morrow to set up a district planning committee to find the best arrangement for the elementary schools.
“The idea is to bring ideas to the district committee and then move forward on them,” Morrow explained.
The votes were taken after 90 minutes of sometimes angry, sometimes tearful public comment on the proposed closing from a succession of Heritage Heights advocates – fathers, mothers, graduates and current students, some of them so small that their heads did not reach the top of the lectern.
Heritage Heights parent Don Jackman, who returned to the public microphone three times to offer three-minute comments, complained that the board had not answered parents’ questions and said that the entire district would be affected by the closing.
“It affects four different schools, not just one school,” he said. “It will increase the population of the schools. Off the record, we’ve heard from teachers who say classes are too large as it is.”
Several speakers praised the multiculturalism of the school and the special attention it gave to non-English-speaking students.
Some said that changing schools would harm students with learning difficulties.
Board Vice President Douglas J. Galli, who spoke at length about his position before the vote was taken, noted that when his children moved to new schools, they adapted quickly.
“Once you get to high school, you’re not a Heritage Heights kid or a Maplemere kid or a Glendale kid,” he said, “you’re a Sweet Home kid.”
Others said that the closing decision was being made too hastily, citing the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda district, which spent two years deciding to close an elementary school.
Board member Morrow agreed.
“It’s the timing,” he said. “We’ve had just 59 days. We need to deal with all the elementary schools and have a workable solution at the end.”
Parents first heard of the proposed closing in mid-January in a letter from Superintendent Anthony J. Day, who pointed to the district’s declining enrollment in the elementary grades. Heritage Heights has about 350 students.
Heritage Heights advocates inundated board members with hundreds of emails, phone calls and letters. They said a petition to keep the school open had gathered nearly 700 signatures.
Galli and School Board President Scott M. Johnson voted in favor of the closing, while members Carol A. Nowak, Marianne Jasen, Joe Miranda, Dirk D. Rabenold and Morrow opposed it. Member Becky Jasen was absent because of a musical practice.
“We don’t always vote in unanimity,” Galli noted, “but once the decision is made, we work forward in lockstep.”