Principals are pushing back against the Department of Education’s plan to seize money from schools whose special education students narrowly miss a bureaucratic cutoff.

Responding to the concerns, department officials said they would issue new guidance to principals that clarifies the department’s commitment to funding special education programs adequately and helping schools keep their budgets stable.

The confusion followed a change in the way the department allocates funds to schools this year as part of a reform effort aimed at helping students with disabilities. The change created tiers of funding levels: The more time special education students spend in classes mixed with general education students, the more money their schools get.

Many principals are finding out for the first time this week, because of a deadline to clean up special education data, that students they thought would bring in a higher rate fall into a lower tier instead — and the department could take back the difference in funds.

“The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year,” 20 principals wrote in a letter to Chancellor Dennis Walcott today. “And it is because of our strong commitment to flexible programming and the other cornerstones of the Special Education reform that our cuts will be so dramatic.”

The principals, representing the Urban Assembly network of middle and high schools, urged Walcott to make several policy changes. They want the city to wait until September to implement the funding tiers, and they also want the department to figure out more flexible ways of representing students’ schedules in the department’s multiple data systems.

Department officials said on Wednesday that they would allow schools to appeal the midyear budget cuts, which in many cases principals said could exceed $100,000. Today, they said they would work with principals proactively to ease their concerns.

“We are actively reaching out to principals to try to clarify the confusion,” said Marcus Liem, a department spokesman.

In the meantime, special education teachers across the city are spending much of their time away from students, reconciling discrepancies between two complex data systems where records frequently conflict, several teachers told GothamSchools today.

People who have expressed concern in the past about the department’s urgency in rolling out special education reforms — even before releasing data from a pilot program — said the current confusion proves that a more measured approach is needed.

“This problem reveals yet again the absence of planning, info sharing and preparation by [the] DOE prior [to] rolling out the reform,” tweeted Lori Podvesker, a parent and special education advocate who sits on the Citywide Council on Special Education.

The principals’ full letter to Walcott is below:

Dear Chancellor Walcott,

We are writing to express our concern about the impending policy changes and budget cuts for Special Education services. We represent a network of schools committed to serving high needs students, including large percentages of students with disabilities, and were participants in Phase 1 of the Special Education reform. The manner in which the mid-year budget adjustment has been implemented and the proposed policy changes around grade code designation for part time students with disabilities will weaken our ability to implement the reform effort and be detrimental to the futures of our highest needs students. These proposals provide a strong incentive to maintain the status quo, as the dramatic and unanticipated funding shifts that were the result of making changes to IEPs that should be good for our students has resulted in destabilization of our school budgets almost overnight.

The DOE provided us with our register projections and budgets last summer but failed to provide any way for us to track the impact of program changes on our budgets and plan accordingly. Only since we returned from winter vacation were we provided with any report that allowed us to assess the impact on our budgets of the movement of students to less restrictive environments, giving us no chance to adjust staffing and programming.  Every budget tracking report received throughout the fall, in fact, considered part-time special education students as full time students. We designed our budgets and programming using this available data. The last-minute data capture has left us scrambling to account for potentially massive cuts to our budgets halfway through the school year. And it is because of our strong commitment to flexible programming and the other cornerstones of the Special Education reform that our cuts will be so dramatic.

We also have grave concerns about the enrollment implications of the directive to change part-time students’ ATS grade codes from special to general education and need assurance that our schools, already well above borough averages for percentages of students with disabilities, will not be overwhelmed with new IEP students requiring additional supports mid-year. Lastly, we are concerned about the as yet unclear implications for both city and state accountability of these same grade code changes. Prior to changing any of our students’ grade codes we are requesting these questions and concerns addressed.

Given this information, we ask the following:

  • Given the delay in rolling out the register tracking tools, instead of burdening schools on the forefront of the reform effort with an unexpected, midyear budget cut, we ask that you give us the remainder of the year to align our programming and staffing with the reality of the funding levels as you have now made them clear and instead to phase in cuts to funding for the next fiscal year.
  • Prior to asking schools to amend grade codes for students with disabilities from special education to general education based solely on percentages, develop and communicate written policies for enrollment and accountability that mitigate the potentially negative impact of mass grade code changes. Provide time for principals to give feedback on these policies and have their questions answered.
  • Instead of asking schools to re-designate all part-time Special Education students as general education, create a new set of grade codes in ATS to allow schools, teachers, programmers and the Offices of Enrollment and Accountability to document students who are part-time in Special Education classes. Allow us to move students from the current Special Education grade codes into these codes and hold us harmless for these moves during the current fiscal year to prevent a financial disincentive from doing so.
  • Reconsider the currently stated policy not to fund students who receive Special Education services in all four major subject areas at the full-time rate at a school with 45 minute periods.  Develop a more nuanced sliding scale funding formula for part time Special Education students so that students in three subject areas receive more funding than students in fewer subject areas, etc. This will avoid the significant financial disincentive in the current system to move a student from full time to three periods per day.
  • Create a more nuanced way to collect information on part-time programming, including a more sophisticated and transparent formula for calculating instructional minutes. Discontinue the use of the USPE screen to gather data, as this data can already been centrally gathered through the SESIS and burdening school staff members, including Special Education teachers, with this additional paperwork is unnecessary.

Before we make any changes to ATS grade codes and any budget cuts are implemented, we would like to meet with representatives from the Office of Special Education Initiatives, Management and Budget, Enrollment and Accountability so that our concerns can be heard and our questions about the impact of the requested changes on programming, funding, enrollment and accountability be addressed. We look forward to a productive dialog over the weeks ahead and hope that it will result in a resolution that will support the important work that we are doing in our schools as part of the Special Education reform.

Sincerely,

The UA Principals

Edward Biedermann
Principal, The Urban Assembly New York Harbor School

Jeffrey Chetirko
Principal, The Urban Assembly Institute for New Technology

Shannon Curran
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice

Fia Davis
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts

Kelly DeMonaco
Kiri Soares
Co-Principals, The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women

Johanny Garcia
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports

Jeffrey Garrett
Principal, The Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters

David Glasner
Principal, The Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law

Mariela Graham
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Criminal Justice for Young Women

David Krulwich
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Applied Math and Science

April McKoy
Principal, The Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology

Patricia Minaya
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Business for Young Women

Mark Ossenheimer
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation

Jennifer Ostrow
Principal, The Urban Assembly Unison School

Alexandra Rathmann-Noonan
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Green Careers

Meisha Ross-Porter
Principal, The Urban Assembly Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice

Mary-Anne Sheppard
Principal, The Urban Assembly Academy for Civic Engagement

Cordelia Veve
Principal, The Urban Assembly School for Media Studies

Matthew Willoughby
Principal, The Urban Assembly School of Design and Construction