NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- Mayor Noam Bramson (D-New Rochelle, NY) blocked a proposal to move Greenburgh Academy, a school for developmentally disabled students, to New Rochelle, according to the schools top administrator, Dr. Robert Maher.
Maher is a longtime educator who currently serves as Chief Executive Officer of St. Christopher’s, a residential treatment and educational institution headquartered in Dobbs Ferry, NY.
For the past month, Bramson has sought, and received, widespread media attention for a confessorial article he wrote entitled Child, Home, Neighborhood, Community & Conscience. The self-published article, offering a one-sided and somewhat fanciful account of events, portrayed Bramson as the lone voice of community conscience decrying the inequities of selfish bigots objecting to a group home for autistic young men in their small, middle-class neighborhood. Bramson was hailed for his refreshing candor, moral clarity and leadership by a variety of liberal media outlets including MSNBC, The Huffington Post, The Journal News (twice), and Taegan Goddard's Political Wire.
Maher spoke with Talk of the Sound after he had read one such article praising Bramson.
“I almost fell out of my chair, when I read it” said Maher.
“In 2011, we had a 'done deal' to relocate Greenburgh Academy from the grounds of the Monastery Church of the Sacred Heart in Yonkers to Blessed Sacrament in New Rochelle,” said Maher. “The New York Archdiocese was to lease the school for $300,000 a year and we had Suzi's support.” Blessed Sacrament is located in the district of since-retired State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer (D-37).
The deal with the Archdiocese was brokered by Dr. Ed Placke, School Superintendent for the Greenburgh-North Castle Special Act School District and former Assistant Commissioner for the New York State Education Department.
Maher says the school was forced to look for a new home after the City of Yonkers condemned the building St. Christopher’s had been leasing from the New York Archdiocese. He says the head of New York State Education Department Facilities concurred with the condemnation.
Wanting to keep St. Christopher’s as a tenant, the Archdiocese offered Blessed Sacrament as an alternative. The location in New Rochelle was more convenient for many Greenburgh Academy students and the level walk from the New Rochelle Transit Center much easier than the steep hills of Yonkers.
“We were excited about moving to New Rochelle,” said Maher. "At the suggestion of Marshall Asche, our CFO and a longtime New Rochelle resident, we set up a meeting with the Mayor, purely as a courtesy call.”
Maher says he wrote a nice letter, listing references, while providing assurances that the school had an excellent graduation rate and a history of being a “good neighbor” in Yonkers. The letter and an information packet touting the school's high graduation rate, the school and the agency profile was handed to Bramson prior to the meeting.
Ten minutes into the meeting, Maher says the Bramson interrupted him and said 'You know, it's really great that you are caring for these students, it’s very noble that you’re doing God’s work but there is no way these students are coming to my community’.
“I was taken aback,” said Maher, who said Bramson then repeated the statement, emphasizing the word “these”.
Asked whether race may have played a factor given that Greenburgh Academy students are almost entirely students of color, most of them African-American.
“I don’t think he’s a racist,” said Maher. “I think he is an elitist.”
Maher says he continued to talk for several more minutes, not quite processing what he was hearing from the Mayor until Bramson interrupted him again, this time with a dismissive wave of his hand.
"'You can do what you want but you’re not moving these students into my community,’” Maher says Bramson told him, again emphasizing the word "these".
Maher and Asche left the meeting bewildered, Asche more than a bit embarrassed.
“We weren’t really worried because we already had a deal with the Archdiocese to lease the school and we had the support of the State Senator,” said Maher. “Besides, the Mayor had no role in what was a private transaction."
Maher says he had connected with Oppenheimer through Chelsea Kadisch, a former student from Briarcliff. Maher was the Principal at Briarcliff High School for 10 years before taking over St. Christopher’s.
The following week, Oppenheimer called to say she could no longer support the school.
“She said she had gotten a call from the Mayor and there was nothing she could do,” said Maher.
Reached for comment, Oppenheimer said she had no recollection of supporting the relocation of Greenburgh Academy to New Rochelle. She did confirm that Maher’s former student was on her staff at the time.
Maher says the Archdiocese was upset because they badly wanted to fill the space and thought they had a tenant for Blessed Sacrament. Eventually the school relocated to the Abbott House in Irvington, NY for two years before moving back to Sacred Heart in Yonkers which had since been renovated. Blessed Sacrament elementary school remains vacant, the St. Gabes-Blessed Sacrament High School has since been shut down by the Archdiocese.
The Greenburgh Academy is a day school for students with Learning Disabilities and Emotional or Behavior Problems, 90% of which are students of color. It is one of four schools operated by St. Christopher’s as part of the Greenburg-North Castle Union Free School District, a Special Act public school district with four campuses in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Clark Academy and and Kaplan Career Academy are residential schools for students with Learning Disabilities and Emotional or Behavior Problems. Clark Academy is located in Dobbs Ferry, NY and Kaplan Career Academy is located in New Windsor, NY.
The REACH Academy, located in Valhalla, NY, is a school that provides residential and educational services for young men and women who have multiple challenges with intensive treatment needs, most with autism spectrum disorders.
Maher found it ironic that Bramson was now positioning himself as a champion for people with developmental disabilities, and especially autism, yet was supportive of the proposed group home in New Rochelle.
“The REACH Academy students are precisely the kinds of youngsters with autism we later seek to place in group homes just like the one proposed in New Rochelle,” said Maher.
Maher took particular exception to an open letter praising Bramson written by Autism Speaks President Liz Feld and prominently displayed on the organization’s web site.
The Feld letter ended:
On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of individuals with disabilities in need of housing in this country, thank you for your leadership. Nothing means more than hearing your message, 'You are Welcome Here.’
“When did he get religion?” Maher wondered aloud when asked about the Feld letter.
“Look, I don’t know Liz Feld and I realize 'Autism Speaks' is a powerful organization,” continued Maher. “but this is not the message we got back in 2011.”
The Greenburgh Academy is well-known as one of the two schools that jointly field the Marching Cobras, an award-winning marching band compromised of students from Greenburgh Academy and Clark Academy. The two schools have an astonishing graduation rate of 80%.
The Marching Cobras were honored last March by State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins as one of three schools (the others were Syracuse University and Rutgers University) to welcome fans to the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium last February.
Stewart-Cousins described the band to the New York State Senate as "showstoppers at every step”, a group of young people with emotional or behavioral problems and learning disabilities who work hard, do their academics and practice drumming, marching and dancing for four hours a day.
Addressing the State Senate she told members: "COBRA stands for 'Commitment, Obedience, Belief, Respect, Achievement.'”
Noam Bramson did not respond to repeated emails seeking comment.