At the heart of the city Department of Education’s beleaguered complaint system for parents of special education student is a doozy of a math problem.
Some 9,695 complaints were filed in the most recent school year, with just nine impartial hearing officers on rotation in mid-June to help resolve them, new documents reveal.
While the more than 1-to-1,000 ratio fluctuates throughout the year, the numbers underscore the depth of the challenge the DOE faces in trying to fix the troubled complaint system, which advocates and parents say can leave kids without needed services for months on end.
The delay in resolving complaints also has sparked financial hardships for some families who must hire lawyers or pay for private services on their own, an issue THE CITY highlighted this week.
The number of complaints in 2018-19 was more than twice the 4,734 filings submitted during the 2014-15 school year, according to State Education Department data.
The new figures were included in a recent letter to state officials from Deputy Schools Chancellor Karin Goldmark as part of a corrective action report detailing the DOE’s plan to address wider special education issues.
Goldmark faulted the State Education Department, which is responsible for appointing impartial hearing officers, for the personnel shortage.
“Parents and NYCDOE are experiencing major delays due to a shortage in NYSED-certified hearing officers available to hear cases and other issues,” wrote Goldmark.
“We depend on NYSED to canvas for new attorney applicants and to offer a new training class in the near future to increase the number of hearing officers available to hear New York City cases,” she added. “Given the urgent need to address this shortage, the NYCDOE stands ready to collaborate on the improvement of recruitment and retention processes for impartial hearing officers.”
State Education Department officials said they have 68 hearing officers certified to cover New York City, but noted that many of them have stopped taking cases because of problems they’ve experienced — including delays in getting paid by the DOE.
They noted that while only nine hearing officers were available on June 14, some 24 were accepting cases as of July 3.
Blame Gets Shifted
Not every complaint filed reaches a hearing officer, but state officials have found that the DOE only mediates a relatively small number of cases.
Advocates said the DOE’s report, obtained by THE CITY under public disclosure law, spends more time shifting blame than offering solutions to longstanding problems.
Hearing officers are reluctant to work with the DOE because of relatively low wages and the payment delays cited by the state, the advocates say.
Representatives for the DOE also lack the authority to determine when a case should be settled rather than litigated. That setup leads to few quick resolutions, even when both sides agree, said Rebecca Shore of Advocates for Children, which works on behalf of at-risk kids.
“I didn’t see any real plan that was going to improve the hearing system,” Shore said of the city’s submission to the state. “In fact, it seemed like the DOE punted on almost everything.”
DOE officials said they’ve already made changes they believe will help speed up the complaint process, including hiring 52 staffers — 44 of them lawyers who will have the authority to settle cases.
They also allocated an additional $3.4 million toward the hearing office and introduced a new tracking system to reduce delays in paying officers.
Services — and Resources — Lag
The corrective action plan was mandated by state officials after they recently found the DOE to be out of compliance with federal law for the 13th straight year regarding providing special education services.
The plan includes a host of measures the DOE has committed to implement by certain deadlines — including employee trainings, staffing boosts and auditing schools — to meet the compliance requirements.
The report also features a self-analysis of the DOE’s struggles to serve the more than 300,000 special education students in pre-K through 12th grade in both private and public schools. Among the challenges:
There aren’t enough psychologists. There are 988 psychologists in public schools — a ratio of roughly one for every 942 students. The psychologists’ duties include helping to craft Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student with special needs
Not enough psychologists are bilingual. Only 331 of the public school psychologists speak a second language, delaying IEPs in some cases, the report says.
Administrative offices are overwhelmed. There are 10 so-called Committees on Special Education that oversee the provision of special education services for roughly 77,000 students in charter schools, private schools and non-public schools. The number of students with IEPs in charter schools alone grew by more than 5,000 between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, reaching 20,000, the report says.
DOE officials said they’re allocating an additional $33 million for special education services, including hiring roughly 200 psychologists, social workers and teachers who will work in schools or on the Committees on Special Education.
“The chancellor has communicated a clear sense of urgency, and we will continue to collaborate closely with the state to ensure all children receive the special education programs and services they need,” said Danielle Filson, a DOE spokesperson.
State officials said they’re reviewing the DOE’s plan, which can’t be finalized without their approval.
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