Battle Over Special Needs School Continues

Turned away by town, Gersh Academy founder vows to find another location

Although the East Hampton Town Board rejected Kevin Gersh’s proposal to open a school here for children on the autism spectrum last Thursday, with four members of the board voting unanimously and Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez absent, the proposal is far from dead.

The board denied reassigning the lease of the now defunct Child Development Center of the Hamptons building on Stephen Hand’s Path to Gersh Academy, based on the fact that the company is not nonprofit, as C.D.C.H. had been.

Parents of autistic children who live between Southampton and Montauk have taken to social media to express disappointment and anger and to encourage families with autistic children to continue the fight. At the same time, Mr. Gersh, insisting that adequate specialized services are not offered by public schools here or by the Suffolk County Board of Cooperative Educational Services learning center in Westhampton Beach, has vowed to find another location in this area where he can open a school.

He also has engaged Stephen B. Latham, a senior partner of a prominent Riverhead law firm, who had a letter hand-delivered on Dec. 4 to Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell and town board members highlighting numerous factual inaccuracies made by school superintendents from Springs, Montauk, East Hampton, and Bridgehampton at a Nov. 21 town board meeting. 

According to Mr. Latham, who shared the letter with The Star after the town failed to release it, the superintendents’ claim that Gersh Academy is not accredited by New York State is a misrepresentation. The letter explained that Mr. Gersh had not sought accreditation for kindergarten through 12th grade because “we firmly believe that the regulatory restrictions and unfunded mandates would compromise our programs and hurt the very children we are here to serve.” However, the letter states, “initial approval from the New York State Education Department for [the . . .] preschool program was received for the East Hampton location of the Gersh Academy in September 2017.” Although all East End school districts provide special services for autistic students, none does so for preschool children.

Another “patently false” statement according to Mr. Latham, was the superintendents’ claim that a school district could only send special-needs children to the Gersh Academy following a state hearing that could cost as much as $100,000. “A hearing is only required when a school district opposes a parent’s request,” the letter said.

The letter also argued against sending children to the Board of Cooperative Educational Services program, stating, “Sending a child from the Town of East Hampton, or from the eastern portion of Southampton, the Village of Sag Harbor, or Shelter Island, to a facility in Westhampton Beach, when a dedicated spe cial-needs educational facility could be made available in the western portion of the Town of East Hampton, subjects these children to countless unnecessary hours on buses.” The letter went on to say Gersh does not think BOCES is the optimum education environment for a special-needs child.

To the superintendents who said there was no need for a specialized school in the area, Mr. Latham quoted the East Hampton Town Board, which in 2002 determined that there was a need for “establishing a school for children with disabilities residing on the East End of Long Island and providing a variety of developmental services for children”

Mr. Latham expanded on the quote by writing, “one has the impression that the district’s programs and services are more than adequate — and that the need envisioned by the town in 2002 no longer exists. Based on our discussions with parents of special needs children, therapeutic and clinical providers on the East End, the need is as great as it was in 2002.”

Meanwhile, in an email to The Star, Jack Pryor, a former principal of the Bridgehampton School, wrote, “It’s all about the money. The East End schools are xenophobic about outside influence. They have millions but can’t get the job done. As in any investigation, follow the money.”