Special Schools advocates took to the Capitol today to urge state lawmakers to offer support and stability to schools that serve New York's most vulnerable students after years of stagnant funding and increased costs.
Although they have emotional and educational challenges, or special needs such as being deaf, these students attend schools that are being wracked by lack of funding. Opportunities for them dissolve each year as many of these schools lose more programs and more teachers.
Some students live in residential 853 Schools. Some of them do not have family to advocate for them. They rely on teachers and staff to do that.
Their teachers and teaching assistants came to Albany today to meet with lawmakers to lay out just how much damage is being done by chronic underfunding, lack of funding parity with public school districts, and a rate reconciliation process that takes years.
Little Flower school in Wading River has lost a vibrant after-school program. The school needs more vocational training programs, a functioning kitchen and more community outreach to help students connect with local businesses, said Sean Colfer, president of the Little Flower Teachers Association.
At Mill Neck Manor School for the Deaf, staff provide food for a pantry and bring in clothes for students in need — but they often have to choose between helping their own families or their students, said Gabrielle Barry, a member of the Mill Neck Manor Education Association. Wages are low for teachers, and for teaching assistants, it is below what fast-food workers make.
Susan Drust, who works at the Cantalician Center in Western New York, said 17 teachers left in the last year; staff has a 28 percent turnover rate.
Ramona Rodriquez, president of the Lavelle School Professional Staff Association, is a teaching assistant in the Bronx for children who are blind, physically disabled, or on the autism spectrum. Students suffer when they lose a good teacher they made a connection with. “We’re losing a lot of good teachers. They love what they do but the funding is hard,” she said.
“Every day, people are here looking for money,” said Senator Shelly Mayer, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “But people with special needs are not always heard.”
“We’re all in this together,” said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, whose members helped get many senators and assembly representatives elected. “Now that they’re here, they need to stand up for public education.”
Family courts, social services, the Office of Children and Family Services and the Office of Mental Health, or local public school districts typically place Special Schools students.
The schools were created by a special action of the Legislature, and because they are funded through a rate-setting process rather than school aid formula, they do not receive increases from the state as traditional public schools do. They also have no taxing authority, so they rely on a state’s rate-making system to generate revenue. This is often delayed by several years, forcing schools to take out loans while waiting for their funding. By then, reimbursement is also based on outdated numbers of students.
NYSUT wants to shorten the process to 120 days. It also wants the state to provide an increase of at least 4 percent to Special Schools, including the residential schools and state-approved preschool programs.
“It’s incumbent on us to find the money. That’s our job,” said Senator Monica Martinez, D-Hauppauge, who spoke of the priority of addressing physical and mental health concerns of students, as well as their social needs.
NYSUT is urging legislation to establish an Excessive Teacher and Direct Care Staff grant program to help retain educators; and wants lawmakers to increase the allocation of the Excessive Teacher Turnover grant program.
“One of my priorities this year will be our special needs kids,” said Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, D-Bronx, chair of the Assembly Education Committee who taught students with mental and physical challenges for 28 years. “They don’t get enough money and they never have. There are new taxes we could pass on the wealthiest.”
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, wondered: “Why aren’t we reimbursing Special Acts at the same level as charters?
Students with highly specialized needs and disabilities cannot choose to go to charter schools, he said. Because public schools do not have the highly specialized services to provide for them, they are sent to Special Act schools.
“We need to figure it out. We’re leaving some kids behind,” said Ryan.