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Mill Neck Seeks Support to Save School Funding at Petition Rally

(UPDATE: Anton Community Newspapers learned on March 30 that the agreement reached on the State’s budget restores funding for “4201” schools.)

A chance comment sliced through the clouds on a rainy day and provided a moment of sunshine and a lifelong memory for Mary McKenna.

The Marketing Communications Coordinator for Mill Neck Family of Organizations barely contained her excitement as she recounted the time 5-year-old Aaron Schlectman met her in a gentle rain, looked squarely in her eyes and said, “Do you really need that umbrella?” Once a quiet toddler because of his deafness, Mary broke into a smile as she recalled the moment he began “chattering away.”

McKenna was one of several administrators of the Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf who patiently answered questions and sought public support at a daylong rally last Saturday at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville. More than 3,000 signatures were collected on petitions at Saturday’s rally and on the Mill Neck campus. They were then sent to the governor in Albany to protest his proposed cuts to eliminate funding for the state’s 11 “4201” schools for children with disabilities. Similar petition drives were held by the other 4201 schools. The Senate and Assembly had approved the funding, but Governor Cuomo eliminated it from his budget proposal and, at the time of the rally, an impasse remained.

The next day, Sunday, tentative agreement between the governor and legislative leaders on the $132.5 billion dollar spending plan for fiscal year 2011-2012 was announced unexpectedly, five days before the Friday, April 1 deadline. In the hours following the tentative agreement, clarification continued to be sought on the specifics of the pact. Approval of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s signature was not expected before midweek.

While a festive atmosphere prevailed at the rally where Mill Neck Manor’s mascot Buddy Bear taught children sign language and raffles were sold, the theme of the day was serious.

Principal Katie Kerzner explained the governor’s proposed cuts would have a severe impact on the school’s programs and activities including “occupational and physical therapy.” She said Mill Neck works “with students from birth until high school” and some students have “no language skills at all.” In addition Mill Neck educators work “closely with their families.” Speaking proudly about the school’s “large influence outside the United States,” Kerzner said students come from countries including Honduras, Bolivia, Dominican Republic and China. With a graduation rate of 84 percent she asked, “How can funding be cut for children most at risk?” Under the governor’s proposal, Kerzner said “payment would be shifted from the state to the school districts” and local school districts already have severe funding problems of their own. “Talk to the kids, talk to the parents,” she said as she urged Governor Cuomo to come and see the program first hand.

Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg (Democrat-Long Beach) was closely involved with efforts to restore the 4201 funding. Praised by Principal Kerzner as “so supportive,” Weisenberg is the parent of a special needs son, who was also in attendance. “We are blessed with Ricky,” he said. Praising his son for “his unconditional love,” Weisenberg lovingly said he “has never done anything wrong.”

On this day of the rally, before the surprise tentative budget agreement was announced, Weisenberg demanded, “4201 funding must be restored.” If the New York State Legislature grants final approval to the state budget by the April 1 deadline, it would be the first time this has happened in the past five years.