Union Wins $38 Million Settlement with Special Education Staff

Daniel Petrotta, a special education teacher, stands in front of his integrated co-teaching classroom at World Journalism Preparatory. (Photo by Andres David Lopez
Daniel Petrotta, a special education teacher, stands in front of his integrated co-teaching classroom at World Journalism Preparatory in Queens. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

The city was prompted to pay $38 million last month to about 31,000 special education teachers and support staff for all the extra hours they spent trying to update student files in the city’s glitchy computer system.

The payments were part of a settlement won by the United Federation of Teachers against the Department of Education in January for requiring staff to work on evenings and weekends to update student records on the city’s relatively new Special Education Information System, or SESIS.

Daniel Petrotta, who oversees special education services at World Journalism Preparatory School in Flushing, Queens, said he spent all of the fall and most of the winter updating records into SESIS and the Department’s other special education data collection systems. He received a payment from the settlement, but said it only reflects a portion of the work he completed updating special education student files.

Keeping track of data is important because special education involves a wide range of services, from speech and physical therapists to psychologists. Each time a child receives a service there needs to be a record of it on his or her file. The problem is that there is more than one system to update. Along with SESIS, which includes a student’s individualized educational plan, there is the Child Assistance Program (CAP), which is used to track special service referrals, and Automate The Schools (ATS), which tracks attendance and exam processing.

“I just wish that the data systems were more fully integrated,” Petrotta said. “If they were, schools wouldn’t waste so much time fixing inaccuracies.”

Besides the fact that they are time-consuming to update, these systems don’t talk to each other, so a school could be in compliance with a student’s education plan in one system, and appear to be out of compliance in another. Funding is determined by the level of services students are required to receive according to their individualized education plans, so these discrepancies interfere with the appropriate allocation of money.

This caused an especially hectic year for Petrotta, who also co-teaches English and Algebra classes with a mix of general and special education students at World Journalism Prep. The school serves 600 6th through 12th graders, a large percentage of whom (18 percent) qualify for special education services.

From September to January, Petrotta worked to correct data discrepancies between special education data systems in the files of more than 80 of his students. He worked under pressure from the Department of Education, which issued a report of discrepancies that the school had to correct before receiving the mid-year funding that covered over enrollment. Fixing these discrepancies, which had been building up since 2011 when SESIS replaced paper files, meant studying and editing data across four different systems. “It isn’t a simple fix,” he said.

Often, Petrotta said he would be on hold waiting to speak with someone at a central helpdesk unable to help him. “It’s very hard not to feel overwhelmed and incompetent because you’re just trying to do what they are asking you to do,” he said. “And what they are asking you to do isn’t working.”

The accounting department at the school stepped in to help with the discrepancy report. “Our payroll secretary got the brunt of it,” Petrotta said, estimating a loss of over a hundred man-hours to the job.

Since World Journalism Prep has a smaller staff and smaller budget but an above average number of special education students,  it could not afford to lose any money due to discrepancies in services rendered. The difference between the amount of money allocated for a special education versus a general education student at the school is almost $12,000.

In March, the Department’s Chief Financial Officer, Michael Tragale, directed requests for comment for this article to the central press office. The office stopped responding after receiving a list of questions, which included a request for an update on the union settlement payments, which were originally scheduled to go out that month. The Department only released the payment details for the settlement this week. Some teachers received as much as $50,000, with 78 receiving $21,000 or more, according to a press release from the union.

At World Journalism Prep, the staff has now adapted to the new data collection reality. Principal Cynthia Schneider explained how the school created its own document to track all of its special education students in all four data systems, something that she was not told to do, but something she learned she would have to do in order to keep files accurate. She expects all staff dealing with special education to integrate SESIS work into their daily tasks now that the school has cleared its discrepancy report. “The good news is that we got it done,” she said. “But it took us half the year.”

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