By Christine Sampson
Kevin Gersh, founder of the Gersh Academy schools for students on the autism spectrum, said Friday he will look elsewhere on the East End for ways to serve those children following the East Hampton Town Board’s decision to reject his bid to operate a private school at the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons facility in Wainscott.
“Something will come up — a building, a child care center, a space, a parent’s home, I don’t know — something will happen,” Mr. Gersh said by phone on Friday. “It always does. Good prevails, and I have to believe in that. When you’re doing the right thing, the universe takes care of itself. They won this battle, they didn’t win the war.”
The town board on Thursday voted 4-0, with Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez absent, to deny the lease to Mr. Gersh based on the fact that his company is not a nonprofit organization, as the previous school organization had been.
“The town finds that Gersh’s existence as a for-profit entity makes assignment of the lease not in the best interest of the town because it would greatly change the nature of the mission and or the operations to be carried out at the site,” the resolution rejecting the lease reads. “…Allowing the below-market rental of the land lease be assigned to a for-profit entity constitutes a gift of public funds barred by the New York State Constitution and applicable state and local laws; and the town believes that the property should only be assigned to a bona fide not-for-profit entity on the terms set forth in the lease.”
Mr. Gersh, however, seemed to think the town board had been swayed by the arguments of local school superintendents who showed up at a previous town board meeting to protest his leasing the CDCH building. Those superintendents claimed that a private, for-profit school that is not state-approved would be a drain on public schools’ financial resources, and they argued that the local public schools are able to adequately serve students with special needs, if not on their own then by sharing services among themselves. But Mr. Gersh said children with autism are still being underserved.
“I wouldn’t be in business if school districts did what they are supposed to do,” Mr. Gersh said. “I’m here for the children who fall through the cracks.”
The Gersh Academy’s attempts to operate at CDCH date back about two years, when Mr. Gersh began talking to Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, the nonprofit entity that managed CDCH, for a potential takeover. CDCH had seen its enrollment drop sharply in recent years and, according to published news reports, the school lost at least $350,000 between July and December 2014. His initial attempt to take over was halted, and the school closed its doors in June of 2016.
Mr. Gersh said Friday that first takeover attempt was unsuccessful for financial reasons. Primarily, he said, the existing teacher contracts, which he would have had to absorb, would have been unsustainable for his business.
“The overwhelming support we got from the parents was, ‘You need to be here. Our children are suffering,’” Mr. Gersh said. “The children are underserved. That upsets me. I’ve spent my life protecting and servicing children with special needs. It’s clearer than ever. We’re not walking away. We will be there. I didn’t get where I am by giving up. There’s nothing on the East End like what we do.”