Administrators from four area school districts this week asked East Hampton Town officials to reject a proposal by a school geared to autistic children to take over the former Child Development Center of the Hamptons building, saying that the current programs offered in local schools are sufficient to serve the region’s students with autism.
The superintendents of the East Hampton, Bridgehampton, Springs and Montauk school districts together asked the Town Board on Tuesday to deny the board of the former CDCH permission to sell the empty school building to the Gersh Academy, a Huntington-based school that specializes in the focused education of children on the autism spectrum.
The CDCH school building itself is owned by the defunct charter school’s board of directors, but the land on which it is built is owned by the town—therefore, any new use must be approved by the Town Board.
Doing so would cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, the administrators said, because the school districts would have to pay the tuition for any students from their regions who attended the school—which they said will charge $55,000 a year in base tuition—and could demand tens of thousands more for services like speech and physical therapy and one-on-one instructional aides.
The superintendents said the local schools have made major advances in educating special needs students and are able to handle the number of students without new resources.
“A lot has changed since [CDCH] originally opened,” said Debra Winter, superintendent of the Springs School District. “Districts have learned to be inclusive. If not inclusive classrooms, included in their district with their peers,” she said of students with special educational needs.
Ms. Winter said that Gersh Academy owner Kevin Gersh has exaggerated the number of autistic students in the region and the limits on the facilities that serve them.
She said the Gersh Academy also has not yet been certified by the state as a K-12 public school for special needs students, so the districts could not recommend that students be sent to the school and would have to be compelled to do so by a parent’s appeal for a hearing—also a costly prospect.
East Hampton School District Superintendent Richard Burns said that his district has just 13 students classified as being on the autism spectrum. Of those, he said, seven are educated at district schools, and the other six attend the BOCES program in Westhampton Beach. He said that for the kids who are sent to BOCES, the school does annual reviews of students’ behavioral, social and educational progress and tries to bring them back into the same building as their peers as soon as possible.
“My gut feeling with the Gersh Academy,” Mr. Burns said, “is that once a kid is in Gersh Academy, they stay there for life. I don’t like that kind of segregationist attitude.”
He called Gersh Academy a “money drain” on local districts.
The Gersh Academy operated the CDCH in its final year but had to close because of low enrollment. The CDCH had operated as an integrated school, with special needs students attending classes with roughly an equal number of students whose parents chose to send them to the school but did not need additional assistance.
The Gersh Academy, in contrast, serves only children on the autism spectrum, not children with any other educational, physical or developmental disabilities.
In October, Kevin Gersh made a pitch to the Town Board to let him take over the building and open a third Gersh Academy school; the other two are in Happauge and West Hempstead. Mr. Gersh said there is a dire need for a facility that specializes in the education of children with autism. The school would also operate a summer camp, he said, with similar focus.
The town has not said when it will make a decision about the Gersh proposal.