South Fork Charter School Shifts Gears

Firm to take over C.D.C.H. management
The State University of New York's Charter School Institute will have to approve a management change at the Child Development Center of the Hamptons. Durell Godfrey

The Child Development Center of the Hamptons, the South Fork’s only charter school, and Kevin Gersh, who operates several private schools for autistic children on Long Island and in Puerto Rico, are moving toward his taking over the school’s management following a financially difficult year in which it lost about $350,000. A management change could occur as early as July 1, pending approval by the State University of New York’s Charter School Institute.

Mr. Gersh is a philanthropist and the founder of the Gersh Academy schools, summer camp, and after-school programs, as well the Gersh Experience, an independent living program for autistic young adults. He is also a co-founder of the West Hills Montessori School. Marilyn Zaretsky, the chairwoman of the C.D.C.H. board of directors, confirmed Friday that talks were underway. “The programs that they create are extraordinary,” she said. Mr. Gersh said the school was still a few weeks away from making a formal announcement and holding an open house.

Schools within a radius of 50 miles may send students to C.D.C.H., with  tuition coming from the home districts’ operating budgets. Ms. Zaretsky said those districts’ budgetary constraints had had an impact on C.D.C.H. “They are doing as much as possible to keep children in-district,” she said, because of the cost of tuition.

The relationship with Mr. Gersh came to light just after C.D.C.H., which is on Stephen Hand’s Path in East Hampton, said it had stabilized its finances. Ms. Zaretsky said the school had been able to “level out” its financial woes by handing over some of its expenses to the current management firm, Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, a nonprofit based in Old Bethpage, which is known as FREE. Ms. Zaretsky said the school had trimmed expenses by eliminating the position of assistant head of school and “streamlined some of our programs and the auxiliary staff.”

Reached by phone yesterday, Mr. Gersh said the teaching and support staffs would be retained if the management change were approved by the state. He would also “utilize our own resources to enhance the program,” he said, and continue to integrate general and special education students, as its original New York State charter mandates.

According to C.D.C.H.’s February 2015 board meeting minutes, the school lost at least $350,000 between July and December 2014, or about 18 percent of its approximately $2 million budget. “The school is experiencing financial difficulty due to the lower number of special-needs children in attendance,” the minutes read. “Cash flow is also a problem, as expenses exceed revenue.”

By June 2015, the deficit had grown slightly, to about $355,000. The June 2015 minutes, which note lower attendance, were the most recent available on the school’s website, although the board met three more times in 2015. Although C.D.C.H. does not have a publicly elected board like school districts do, its meetings are open to the public and the board functions almost exactly like public school boards. C.D.C.H.’s board meets approximately every other month; its next meeting, according to its website, is March 28.

Financial problems brought on by declining enrollment were “what led us to believe that FREE as an organization had brought C.D.C.H. as far as we could bring it,” Gerard Cairns, vice president of education and youth services with FREE, said in an interview Tuesday. When the former head of C.D.C.H., Patricia Loewe, who had been with the school since the fall of 2012, stepped down in August, Mr. Cairns took over as interim leader.

Mr. Cairns said FREE had conducted a national search for someone to take over C.D.C.H. Among those contacted was Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy, the New York City network of 34 charter schools that has attracted national attention and controversy. Mr. Cairns said a Success Academy representative declined to discuss a relationship with C.D.C.H.

“We kept our ear to the ground and then Kevin Gersh reached out,” Mr. Cairns said. “We actually sat with him, visited his school in West Hempstead, and we came away very impressed. . . . His caring for kids is so evident when you go into that school environment.” Ms. Zaretsky also lauded Mr. Gersch. He had been a student in the South Huntington School District, she said, when she was a superintendent there, and her own children attended his summer camp.

In November 2013, C.D.C.H. had 80 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. That figure was 57 this year, with 40 general education students and 17 special education students. The school had about a 50-50 ratio of general to special education students in the past. C.D.C.H.’s private, tuition-based preschool, on the other hand, is “faring very well,” Mr. Cairns said, with 28 students in a full-day program. Tuition does not come from any of the local school districts.

A significant portion of the student body comes from the Springs School District, which sends 26 students. Wainscott and Montauk have one student each at C.D.C.H. East Hampton has three special education students there and seven in general education. Of the three students Amagansett sends to C.D.C.H., two are preparing to transfer out. Citing privacy concerns, Sag Harbor School District officials declined to say whether any of its students attend the charter school. Bridgehampton and Sagaponack School do not have any students there.

According to Mr. Cairns, tuition rates are based on what students’ home school districts spend per student. For instance, tuition for general education students would be $25,075 for a Sag Harbor student, $21,775 for Springs, $57,998 for Amagansett, $23,764 for Southampton, and $16,426 for Riverhead. For special education, the tuition rates are the per pupil rate plus the expenses for specialized services such as therapies and aides, which often increases tuition to more than $60,000 per student.

Ms. Zaretsky said the school is now “focusing a great deal on recruitment. It’s very much needed on the East End, this type of program. There is not a real centralized Board of Cooperative Educational Services to provide what we can provide, whether for a child with special needs or not. We’ve been able to make headway with all types of children with a very personalized program.”

After beginning in 1997 as a program for a small group of toddlers in the house of Dawn Zimmerman Hummel, its founder, C.D.C.H. opened as an authorized public charter school in January of 2001, serving students in kindergarten through third grade. By the 2005-6 school year, it had expanded to fifth grade.

The SUNY Charter School Institute found C.D.C.H. to be in good academic standing during the 2014-15 school year as it had in several earlier years.  In February 2015, the institute recommended five-year renewal of C.D.C.H.’s charter. But the school has had financial challenges despite its academic standing. In February 2013, an audit by the office of New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli found a weakness in its financial practices due to the lack of certain reports from FREE.

“The board’s failure to rigorously review the school’s finances, particularly in view of the management corporation’s complete control of its financial activities, significantly increases the risk that school assets could be lost or misappropriated,” the audit stated. “We also found that the two-month budget-to-actual revenue and expenditure reports that FREE presented to the board did not contain information to ensure school funds are effectively and efficiently used.”

Also among the audit’s findings was that for two years, C.D.C.H.’s regular school program operated at a surplus, masking the fact that its summer program operated at a deficit. The school board said in a subsequent letter to the comptroller that it had resolved the deficiencies.

As recently as Jan. 1, the C.D.C.H. Foundation for Special Children, a nonprofit organization that supports the charter school, was collecting donations via the crowd-funding website gofundme.com. As of Friday, about $3,500 of its $500,000 goal had been raised over 10 months. The campaign’s page reads, “The shifting educational landscape has presented us with some short-term financial hurdles, and we would greatly appreciate your help.”