Despite the 35-degree weather, teachers, parents, and children gathered at the wrought iron gates of Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf to protest the potential closing of the school’s Early Childhood Center. Bundled up in hats, gloves, and scarves to protect themselves from the bitter cold and wind, protestors held up signs and chanted “Save Our School” as motorists drove down Frost Mill Road honking their horns in support.
The school is in danger of closing due to a “multi-million-dollar loss,” according to a statement put out by Michael Killian, president and CEO of the Mill Neck Family of Organizations, the umbrella organization for the ECC. Killian cited teachers’ salaries as the main reason for the deficit. He also said in a Jan. 30 letter that staff compensation is “substantially above that of comparable schools and the significant primary reason for the program’s on-going financial problems.”
But union leaders say that the teachers’ contract is not up for negotiation until 2018, and that staff has forgone raises for the past four years. They also say that recent renovations to the schools’ campus would indicate that the school has sufficient funding.
“We feel like we’ve all been dealt a hammer-blow,” said Kathy Biordy, a teaching assistant at the school. “No real information about why we could be closing has been given to anyone at ECC.”
According to the Mill Neck Manor Educational Association, the school’s employee union, the staff at ECC was told that the school would be closing on June 30, 2017. As rumors began to fly throughout campus, parents got increasingly worried. “Everyone’s running around trying to find placement for our kids,” said Joe Lyons, a parent a Mill Neck ECC. “If you’re in a placement that’s eight to one to two it’s even harder.”
Eight to one to two refers to the student to teacher ratio — eight students, one teacher, and two teaching assistants in a class. This ratio is for the school’s lowest functioning students, the children that receive the most services and the most help.
“Where are these kids going to go?” asked ECC teacher Gina Pisciotta. “There are only three placements in all of Nassau County appropriate for our students and we have 70 kids.”
Both teachers and parents are struggling to find schools, says Pisciotta, that can attend to their students needs, many of whom have severe disabilities. The program runs for 12 months so many parents will have to find a suitable school for their children by July 1, if the school closes on June 30.
Kerry Gallagher was attending the rally with her three children, Colin, 13, Kayla, 11, and Gavin, 5. Both Colin and Kayla are graduates of the ECC and Gavin currently attends.
“I have a lot of good memories here,” said young Colin. “This school has the lowest tuition for kids with special needs.” Little Gavin chimed in and said, “I love my school.”
Assemblyman Chuck Lavine was with the protestors, talking to the parents and teachers and assuring them he would do whatever he could to help. “This school offers a public service that this community can’t do without,” Lavine said firmly. “There are 70 precious children in this remarkable program with nowhere to go if it closes. The community cannot and will not let that happen.”
Husband and wife, David and Colleen Vermillion, held signs that read “Government Cuts Should Not Impact Our Children’s Education” and “Keep Mill Neck Open.” The Vermillions have a son who is a recent graduate of the program. Their son, who received physical therapy and help for sensory issues while at the ECC, now attends kindergarten at Bayville Primary, a public school. “His teachers worked with him and brought him beyond what I thought they would be able to do,” Colleen said. “Without Mill Neck he would not be in a regular kindergarten class. He loves going to school now.”