By Kathryn G. Menu
Four superintendents — three representing schools located in East Hampton Town — approached the East Hampton Town Board last week in opposition to a request by the Gersh Academy, a private school for children on the autism spectrum, to take over the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons property in Wainscott.
East Hampton School District Superintendent Richard Burns was joined by Lois Favre from the Bridgehampton School, Jack Perna from the Montauk School and Debra Winter from Springs School at the town board’s November 21 work session. The superintendents encouraged the board to reject a request by Gersh Academy founder Kevin Gersh to take over the school, which is located on town-owned property off Stephen Hands Path. In early October, Mr. Gersh presented plans for a kindergarten through 12th grade program, including a summer camp, at the Wainscott facility, beginning this June.
“It was an inclusive school taking children from surrounding school districts at public expense,” said Ms. Winter of CDCH. “Each district paid their per student tuition rate to the charter school. There was no expense in litigation because it was approved by the New York State Education Department and was totally a parent’s choice.”
The Gersh Academy, said Ms. Winter, is not a state approved program so school districts cannot place students there through their committees on special education.
“It would be private, restrictive and only serving students on the autism spectrum … The district could not recommend this not approved, not public school because it is the most restrictive environment and the state does not recognize it,” she said.
According to Ms. Winter, a parent could demand an impartial hearing from its school district to have their child placed at a school like the Gersh Academy. Those hearings, on average, she said, can cost about $90,000. To avoid the hearing, a district can enter into a stipulation agreement to send the student to a school not approved by the state. Tuition at Gersh Academy is $55,000 annually, said Ms. Winter, and that is before related services like speech and physical therapy, transportation and one-on-one instructional aids.
“A lot has changed since the charter school opened — districts have learned to be inclusive,” added Ms. Winter. “Even if not in an inclusive classroom, they are in a district with their peers. We work together. If one district does not have space, another district will provide the program for these children.”
Mr. Burns said he believed the school would “be a severe money drain to the taxpayers of East Hampton.”
While Sag Harbor School Superintendent Katy Graves was out of town on November 21, on Wednesday she said she agreed with her fellow superintendents.
“I feel we are meeting the needs of our students and are working in cooperation with each other on the East End,” she said. “I have students in Sag Harbor who have their needs met in other districts and we have programs here that serve students from other districts.”
“We have expanded our programming for our fragile learners and every year we revisit what our children need,” added Ms. Graves. “Our committee on special education meets throughout the year to talk about what is needed for each individual child. If we can keep the children here with their family, their siblings and their peers, that is our goal.”
“I think options are always good and to dismiss the idea of a dedicated school for children with autism is misguided,” said Kim Covell, a parent from Southampton who has a son with autism whose needs require a specialized program. “Not every student can receive an appropriate education within the available models in a public school district. Further, while the concept of inclusion is good and commendable, it’s not always the best option.”
Ms. Covell founded the Flying Point Foundation for Autism in 2008, a non-profit dedicated to creating and supporting programs and services for those with autism, although she said this week she was speaking on behalf of herself, not the foundation.
“I don’t want to be dismissive of the school districts, but I do think options are good,” Ms. Covell said. “And you cannot bottom line kids with autism — you need to find the program that is right for them, whether that is Gersh or another program.”
On Wednesday, Alex Walter, the executive assistant to East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell, said the board discussed the request by the Gersh Academy in executive session following the November 21 work session.
“I think there will be a decision before the end of the year,” said Mr. Walter.