The state Education Department, which oversees Ferncliff Manor in Yonkers, and is reviewing its plan to build at the WestHELP site in Greenburgh, says that the biggest percentage of Ferncliff’s students come from New York City.
Westchester students comprise just 38 percent of Ferncliff’s enrollment, with New York City and Long Island students comprising 57 percent of the school’s enrollment, according to state Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn and Ferncliff spokesman Jim Cavanaugh.
The Jan. 7 letter, obtained Monday by Tax Watch, was written by James P. DiLorenzo, assistant commissioner for the state Education Department’s Office of Special Education. It was sent to county legislators MaryJane Shimsky and Alfreda Williams, who both represent residents in the town of Greenburgh. The town is seeking to raze the WestHELP apartments so Ferncliff can build a new campus there.
The apartments opened in 1991 under a 40-year agreement in which the complex housed the homeless for 10 years, and then were turned over to the town of Greenburgh for 30 years to house its low- and moderate income residents, preferably seniors or municipal workers.
Proponents for Ferncliff, who include Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino and the Greenburgh Town Council, have argued that Westchester County needs to sacrifice its 108 affordable apartments at WestHELP so Ferncliff Manor can build a campus for its severely developmentally disabled students. Several Westchester parents with children there have said they fear that Ferncliff will be forced to move out of Westchester if the WestHELP site isn’t approved.
DiLorenzo said many of Ferncliff’s students come from families in New York City, where there is great demand to house students who are severely disabled.
Among the school’s 63 students, 27 are from New York City, 24 are from Westchester, 9 from Long Island, 2 from Putnam County, 1 from Orange County, according to Dunn, and Cavanaugh.
“NYSED has approved Ferncliff Manor to serve 66 school-age students, ages 5-21, with multiple disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and autism,” stated DiLorenzo. “The program is at capacity and often has a waiting list. The majority of students are from New York City where there continues to be a lack of sufficient residential programs for this population. Other nearby programs in the Westchester area also have limited or no vacancies.”
Several proponents of the WestHELP housing have said there are many options for children at Ferncliff in the region. Cavanaugh said that local options are limited. .
“Everyone is so blithe to say that, but it’s just not true,” Cavanaugh. “Most of the residential kids at Ferncliff are profoundly disabled kids, who get checked every 10 minutes at night. They are kids who cannot feed themselves, kids that need 24/7 care. There aren’t other programs for those kids.”
Cavanaugh challenged the critics to name a local agency that would accept Ferncliff’s residential students. They are categorized as “hard-to-place” by state agencies.
“Please tell us the names,” Cavanaugh said. “No one else seems to know about them. In Westchester, Ferncliff is the only one who takes those kids.”
In the letter, DiLorenzo said SED continues to review Ferncliff’s proposal. The town of Greenburgh has asked for a state commitment of $500,000 as year for 20 years to lease the six-acre site and the WestHELP administration building.
“The proposed lease costs specified by the Town of Greenburgh will be taken into consideration along with all the other costs associated with the property’s renovation before NYSED can provide a determination on support,” he wrote. “The lease costs in and of themselves do not make the project prohibitive, but until plans and a budget are submitted, NYSED cannot guarantee support.”
Final approval, DiLorenzo said, rests with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s state Division of Budget. Cuomo forged the deal to build the housing in 1990 while working to promote housing for the homeless.