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State: Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf was reimbursed for 'inappropriate' expenses

Mill Neck School for the Deaf allegedly overcharged

Mill Neck School for the Deaf allegedly overcharged for reimbursement of expenses to which it was not entitled, including extra salary and benefits for the school's executive director. (March 14, 2013). Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

A state audit report that Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf overcharged taxpayers more than $280,000 for expenses -- including salary and perks for the school's executive director -- has renewed demands for tougher statewide oversight of private special-education centers.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, in a statement released Thursday, rebuked both the Mill Neck school and the state Education Department. The agency is responsible for overseeing more than 300 private schools, both nonprofit and for-profit, that receive state reimbursement for services to students with disabilities.

"As we have seen in numerous audits, providers are taking advantage of lax oversight of the state's special education programs," DiNapoli stated. "The state Education Department needs to improve its oversight of these providers to ensure public monies are being spent properly."

The Mill Neck school's executive director, Mark Prowatzke, has been on medical leave since October and was unable to comment, officials there said Thursday.

Chief financial officer William Charon issued a staunch defense against the state's report, contending auditors were "excessive" in disallowing the school's claims for reimbursement. Auditors erred in calculating that Prowatzke spent much of his time administering five other agencies affiliated with the school, he said, adding that the director devoted at least 85 percent of his schedule to the school itself.

"Dr. Prowatzke leads a fine organization serving deaf and severely disabled individuals, both adults and children -- he's devoted his life to that," said Charon, noting that the director's record includes a doctoral degree and 35 years in his career field.

State auditors, however, said the school had not provided documentation on how Prowatzke spent his time.

Auditors reported unjustified expense claims including $64,817 in salary payments to Prowatzke, $11,934 in utilities, repairs, maintenance and landscaping equipment for the executive director's on-campus residence, and $7,688 in vacation costs.

The audit covered a two-year period ended on June 30, 2010. Prowatzke's total annual salary during that period was $166,000, according to Charon.

In a separate response, Sharon Cates-Williams, a deputy state education commissioner, agreed with auditors' findings and pledged the agency will seek to recover "inappropriate and unsupported" expenses from the Mill Neck school.

Cates-Williams said the department will review its oversight of private special-education centers statewide to see if more stringent supervision is needed.

The deputy education commissioner made a similar pledge in December, after the comptroller's office found "widespread fraud" by private special-education schools statewide. A month earlier, the state Board of Regents took initial steps to improve oversight, including a rule requiring any new centers to be nonprofit.

Established in 1951, Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf is a nonprofit, privately managed agency with 200 students ranging in age from infants to high schoolers. Students include both the profoundly deaf and those with other communication disorders.

The school occupies an 86-acre former estate in Mill Neck Village on Oyster Bay Town's North Shore.It is among a statewide group of eleven "4201 schools" -- so named because they are covered by that section of state education law -- that receive state funding in exchange for providing free services to children who are deaf, blind or physically disabled.

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