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Schools for disabled fear effects of state cuts

Albertson, NY. Thursday December 17, 2009.

Albertson, NY. Thursday December 17, 2009. Photo Credit: Newsday/photo by Pablo Corradi

Six-year-old Dylan Cuevas needs a portable ventilator to breathe and a motorized wheelchair to move about his classroom at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson.

Even so, the first-grader looks forward to the day he is old enough to play a modified form of basketball with the school's team - provided recent state budget cuts don't result in the team's elimination.

"I just can't imagine what would happen if we had to tell him in a few years he won't be able to play basketball," said the boy's mother, Debbie Cuevas, an officer in the school's Special Education PTA.

Albany's efforts to close a $3.2 billion budget gap are likely to hit hard at three Long Island schools serving students with severe disabilities. The others are Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset and Mill Neck Manor School for Deaf Children in Mill Neck.

All three are among 11 state-funded "4201 schools" - mostly private, nonprofit institutions that serve youths who are blind, deaf or physically impaired. Earlier this month, Gov. David A. Paterson and state lawmakers agreed to cut $8.2 million in aid to such schools, part of a 12.5 percent across-the-board cut in aid to local governments and other agencies.

"It's an unfortunate reality that we are having to do some actions such as these, but this is what is necessary to close the $3.2 billion budget gap," said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.

As the State Education Department decides how much money will be lost by each institution, Island school officials and parents wait and worry.

Ken Morseon, superintendent of Cleary, which educates about 90 students, said aid losses there could total $500,000 for the remaining school year, depending on how state cuts are apportioned.

He added the school would postpone nonemergency repairs, and that he was looking for other possible trims as well.

"I hope our mission does not suffer because of budget cuts," Morseon said. "We want to maintain our program and do our damnedest to keep our program running as well as it does."

Mill Neck school officials did not return phone calls.

Viscardi School executive director Patrice McCarthy Kuntzler said she may have to eliminate sports and other rec programs. The school has 190 students with orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injuries or multiple disabilities.

Chris Pascucci, chairman of Viscardi's board, estimated his school might face a $1 million loss. He noted state lawmakers earlier this month decided against cutting aid for public schools, while agreeing to reductions for special schools such as his.

"It has to be an oversight, and we are bringing it to the Governor's attention to fix," he said.

Last week, Paterson announced that he would unilaterally withhold $582 million in aid and STAR property-tax rebates destined for public schools. The governor did not say how long payments would be delayed, and education groups are challenging his action in court.

"They are trying to balance the budget on the backs of disabled children," said Harold Mowl, chairman of the 4201 Schools Association, which represents such schools statewide.

Angela Mayer of Howard Beach, Queens, whose son Phillip is a third-grader at Viscardi, worries that further state-aid cuts might eventually force the boy to attend another school closer to home. Mayer notes Viscardi is equipped with a full medical clinic and other facilities to help her son, who suffers from severe muscle degeneration, and that he and classmates feel at home there.

"In a district school, they would be like outsiders," she said.

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