Paula Brinker, center, a first grade teacher at Cleary School...

Paula Brinker, center, a first grade teacher at Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset, works with students during a class session. Tia Ciotti, of Miller Place, left, and Christina Intartaglia, of East Islip, help as teacher assistants. (March 8, 2011) Credit: Chris Ware

Long Island's three specialized schools for the deaf, blind and severely disabled could lose funding under a proposal by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a move advocates say will jeopardize the most vulnerable children and shift costs to already burdened public school districts.

Advocates for 4201 schools, named for the section of the state education law, will rally tomorrow in Albany in protest.

"The stakes are very high for us as a family," said Sarah Sipila, a Great River parent of a 3-year-old at the Cleary School for the Deaf in Nesconset. Cleary, the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson for the disabled and the Mill Neck Manor School for Deaf Children educate a combined 259 children.

The governor's budget office says the change will not force 4201 schools to close, but fund them the same way as other private schools for the disabled. The 11 such schools statewide receive direct funding in the state budget -- about $117 million this year -- but Cuomo's proposal eliminates the budget line, leaving school districts to pay some costs with a smaller contribution from the state. The proposal is expected to save the state $14 million a year after 2011-12; in 2011-12, the savings would be $98 million, resulting from a lag in reimbursements the first year of the change.

"What we are proposing to do is to apply the same system that every other private education institution in the state lives under," said Morris Peters, spokesman for the governor's division of budget.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's education committee, said the funding formula should remain the same.

"You want to make sure these children are getting exactly what they need," Flanagan said. "This is a cost that should not be on the backs on the local taxpayers, particularly since this is something the state of New York has paid for well over 100 years."

The schools also would lose authority to approve the children for their programs; that responsibility would shift to local school districts that may not send eligible children to the 4201 schools to avoid paying tuition, said Howard Mowl, head of a state association for 4201 schools.

Services offered at the schools -- such as peer-to-peer interaction at the Cleary School -- cannot be replicated in home districts, said Cleary superintendent Ken Morseon.

Educating these children, whether done in-house or not, could cost Island districts $18 million, advocates said -- paid by taxpayers, not the state.

Brentwood alone has 14 children in 4201 schools; its costs could be nearly $1 million.

"We have a massive task ahead to balance the budget. . . . We can't afford another million dollars," said Brentwood spokesman Rick Belyea.

Average costs for the other 100-plus special education schools statewide are $41,000 per pupil, and $59,000 for severely disabled students with higher needs, according to the governor's budget office. Costs at 4201 schools statewide average $93,000 per pupil. "These schools are significantly more expensive," Peters said.

State law requires that students be placed in the most appropriate setting as determined by a local committee on special education. If the determination is "that a 4201 school is the best place for a child, then that child will go to the 4201 school no matter what else happens in terms of this budget," Peters said.

With Michael Amon

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