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East Hampton rejects proposed school for students with autism

The town board rejected leasing property in Wainscott after school district officials said the academy would have been a ‘financial nightmare.’

East Hampton rejected a bid to lease vacant

East Hampton rejected a bid to lease vacant property in Wainscott, seen on Dec. 18, 2017, to be used as a school for students with autism. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The East Hampton Town Board has rejected a bid by a private school for students with autism to operate in Wainscott after local school superintendents voiced opposition.

Huntington-based Gersh Academy had proposed renting a vacant 12-acre property for a school and camp exclusively for students with autism, officials said.

The academy would have paid $1 a year for the property, which town officials previously leased to the Child Development Center of the Hamptons, a nonprofit school for students with special needs that closed in 2016.

“It’s really a question of, are we going to provide a lease with essentially no rent to a for-profit?” said Larry Cantwell, who recently retired as town supervisor.

Kevin Gersh, founder of the Gersh Academy, said the lease was rejected despite “a dire need of services for children on the spectrum” east of Westhampton Beach, where the nearest BOCES school is.

“It’s when we close our doors when children lose out,” said Gersh, who has schools in Hauppauge and West Hempstead.

The board voted down the proposal on Dec. 7 after several South Fork school superintendents expressed concern about Gersh Academy’s costs for local districts and its segregation of students with autism.

Debra Winter, superintendent of the Springs school district, said East Hampton Town students with autism are typically educated in the Southampton school district.

If students need more services, a special education committee can recommend they go to a state-approved private school for students with disabilities.

Gersh Academy is not on this list of schools, meaning parents would have to sue districts to pay to send their children there and districts would not be reimbursed by the state for tuition costs, Winter said.

“For several schools, especially Springs, Gersh would’ve been a financial nightmare for us,” she said.

Gersh said he opted out of the state special education list because “we get more progress” educating “our way.” For example, he said the academy has a low student-teacher ratio. Tuition is about $55,000 a year.

The academy is approved to provide coursework or training to students with autism, according to the state education department.

Genie Egerton-Warburton, whose 5-year-old son, Roland, has severe autism, said the town board’s decision is “taking away the rights of children who are special needs.” The Water Mill resident said her son is schooled at home because of a lack of available services.

“They’re not listening to parents with children with special needs,” she said. “We will find a place for the Gersh Academy to open up.”

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