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Special ed advocates wary after news of Harries’s departure

Just months after adjusting to the news that a schools official with no special education experience would be reviewing the city’s special education offerings, advocates for children with disabilities are now reeling from another shakeup: The news that the official, Garth Harries, is leaving the city.

The announcement today came after a months-long “listening tour” intended to teach Harries about the issues facing teachers and families of children with special needs. On the tour, Harries heard from anxious parents who explained from their point of view the nuances of an extremely complicated system.

“The special education community has invested a lot of time in bringing Garth up to speed,” said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children of New York (where I used to work). “I hope all that time will not be lost.”

Harries is scheduled to begin revealing his recommendations next week. Teachers union vice president Carmen Alvarez, who focuses on special education, said she doesn’t think Harries worked in special education long enough to have a lasting impact.

“I don’t think he was here long enough to really see anything happen, and now he’ll be gone,” Alvarez said. “He certainly wasn’t here long enough to say one thing or the other. All he did was listening tours.”

Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who has criticized the Department of Education’s delivery of special education services, said she wasn’t surprised by Harries’s departure. “We’ve come to expect this kind of inconsistency from the DOE,” she said.

Gotbaum added, “I look forward to seeing the results and recommendations of Mr. Harries’ report, but what is more important is that the DOE fill special education positions with individuals who have relevant backgrounds and are committed to staying until the job is done.”

Harries’s departure, coming after those of special education czar Linda Wernikoff and Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Marcia Lyles, means there is just a single veteran special education administrator remaining. The city has not yet indicated who will head up special education after the end of this month, when Wernikoff leaves. 

That uncertainty, coming after months of waiting for recommendations that could dramatically reshape special education in the city, is the most troubling thing for special education advocates.

“Garth’s departure leaves another hole in the leadership structure for special education at the DOE,” said Sweet. “We’re all anxiously watching to see how this turns out.”

In an interview this morning, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said that the timeline for a review of special education has not changed; Harries was always expected to release a report with recommendations, and he will still do that. Klein says the only change is that the department will have to implement the recommendations without Harries’ help.