Special education hearings moved to New York trials agency to remedy backlog

This story was originally published December 22 by THE CITY.

The administration of Blasio transfers the supervision of a pending special education complaint system – where filings usually take months or years to resolve – from the education department to a city entity that manages administrative processes.

The change was codified earlier this month in a protocol of agreement between the city and state education departments and the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH) which gives the city office two years to clear the backlog of cases.

OATH’s justice system holds trials for alleged violations in a variety of areas, including conflict of interest rules, campaign finance regulations, and local laws, such as the right to paid sick leave.

The move marks the apparent end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s more than seven-year attempt to reform the complaints system for families of special education students, just as he is about to leave the hotel city.

Filings are typically complaints from parents that their students are not receiving the services they need, or requests from parents to charge the city for private school tuition when public schools cannot serve their children adequately. .

The system registered around 5,000 security deposits per year when de Blasio first announced reform attempts in June 2014. It now registers more than double that number per year – and is currently overwhelmed by one more backlog. of 16,000 files opened, education officials confirmed earlier. this month.

Family advocates said there were too many unanswered questions for them to assess whether the move would bring any improvements, even though they acknowledged that the current complaints system was broken.

“While rapid change without the input of various stakeholders makes us a little uncomfortable, no action at all makes you feel good either,” said Matthew Lenaghan, deputy director of litigation at Advocates for Children.

City education officials said the change marked a collective effort to help families of special education students who remain wary of the past. improvement plans failed to make substantial changes.

“This transition will allow us to dramatically reduce wait times, ensure there are dozens of dedicated full-time hearing officers, and expand our technological capabilities to streamline the entire process,” said said Sarah Casasnovas, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.

“Contradictory process”

Dolores Swirin-Yao, of East Flatbush, Brooklyn, filed a lawsuit on September 25 seeking reimbursement of tuition fees for her son, Jeremy, who is 17.

Three months later, she is still waiting for the matter to be referred to a hearing officer.

She goes through this process every year so that her son, who has been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, can continue studying at Aaron Private School in Manhattan.

Some years, education officials offered Jeremy a place in a public school, a placement that Swirin-Yao and the hearing officers did not consider appropriate. Some years they haven’t.

But every year to date, the education ministry has finally settled and paid the tuition fees.

“It would be great if his needs were met in a public school,” Swirin-Yao said. “If they can’t be, then the whole adversarial process should be eliminated.”

A two-year depollution plan

The December 1 agreement says the OATH will initially hire up to 50 full-time hearing officers to staff a newly created special education unit.

Once these hires are made, OATH and DOE’s current impartial hearing office will operate simultaneously for six months, at which time the system will be fully transferred to the administrative trials office.

OATH may then hire attorneys to serve as additional hearing officers. The memo orders OATH to clear the backlog in two years.

The state Department of Education will retain responsibility for training hearing counselors and, if necessary, revoking their certification.

The document prioritizes the scheduling of hearings based on six types of complaints – students eligible but not receiving special education services are placed at the top of the list.

Next are students who lack some of the services mandated in their individual education programs, followed by students whose parents believe they deserve more help than they receive.

The lowest priority is for parents who unilaterally place their children in private schools – as they are allowed to do – on the belief that public schools are unable to adequately meet the needs of their children.

“Family approach”

The impartial hearing system has long been viewed by parents and advocates as needlessly combative, including under the previous administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Cases that are fought and won by parents one year are often challenged by the DOE the following year, even when the circumstances underlying the claims have not changed.

The system has also been riddled with delays, which means students go months without special education services required or parents wait months for reimbursement of large sums they spend on services or tuition fees. .

De Blasio sought to resolve both issues soon after arriving at City Hall when he announced changes to the treatment of tuition reimbursements for parents who placed their children in private schools when public schools could not serve them appropriately.

Its solution included an expedited review of cases that could be resolved within 15 days, as well as faster payment of tuition fees.

“We believe in a parent and family friendly approach, which we will be able to resolve quickly in the vast majority of cases and help parents get what they need,” de Blasio sworn at the time.

Advocates say the idea was good but not fully implemented, and some critics have even argued that its leniency has encouraged the filing of more tuition reimbursement cases. .

Between the 2014-15 and 2018-19 school years, complaints more than doubled to 9,695 per year, according to data from the state’s education department.

In addition, the city’s spending on private school tuition fees for special education students has increased. more than tripled under de Blasio – from less than $ 200 million in fiscal 2013 to over $ 650 million in fiscal 2021, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

No easy solutions

In February 2019, a State review The city’s impartial hearing process for special education complaints revealed a system in “crisis” that teetered on “collapse.”

Many of the issues identified were administrative in nature, including too few hearing officers, not enough courtrooms, and almost no attempt at mediation by the Department of Education.

The city’s pay scale for hearing officers has also been criticized as being too low and not enough took charge of complete files – something the state ultimately tried to resolve by certifying more officers.

DOE officials at the time pledged to invest $ 3.4 million to make physical improvements to the downtown Brooklyn courtroom, while reiterating their commitment to improving the complaints process for families. .

In February 2020, parents bogged down in the complaints system filed a class action on the city’s violation of a 75-day deadline to resolve cases. The average time to close at the time was 259 days.

Since then, state and city education officials have tried to introduce a number of solutions.

Last year, state officials asked the city to take care of other business. This year, they expanded the pool of lawyers eligible to serve as hearing officers and allowed some hearings by video to make hearings more accessible.

None of the measures made a dent, leading to this month’s deal.

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