Local school districts are asking Gov. Cuomo to veto a bill proposing changes in the way special education placements are made because they say it will place financial and administrative burdens on schools.
Under the bill, passed by state lawmakers last month, schools would need to take a student's home life and cultural environment into account when making placement decisions. The measure would also speed up the process and require districts to reimburse parents for tuition payments made by parents to private schools not approved by the state within 30 days.
"It's essentially a voucher system we have no control over," said Jere Hochman, superintendent of Bedford Central Schools, at a recent school board meeting.
A group of 16 Westchester-Putnam school boards—including Bedford Central and Katonah Lewisboro Schools—have approved resolutions formally opposing the bill, which Gov. Cuomo has not signed into law.
Hochman said the change could cause public funds to be channeled to private schools because parents of students who are now fully included in public schools parents might opt for the private special education program that complies with the interpretation of considering 'home environment and family background.' The language could encourage more placements of students with low-incidence disabilities whose education can be in six figures, he added.
Assemblyman Robert Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) said he supported the bill because it was the "right thing to do."
"I understand the financial plight of schools," he said. "But I do not think we are talking about more than a handful of kids. And this bill affords opportunities to kids who require specialized schooling and who have dietary and physiological needs beyond the public school setting. I sympathize with districts but at the end of the day, I sympathize more with the child."
The bill passed 47-13 in the Republican-controlled Senate and 93-50 in the Democratic-controlled Assembly on June 21, the last day of the Legislature's session this year, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said the costs were not a factor in developing the legislation. "We thought it was [about] fairness," he told the WSJ. "We honestly don't believe that it's going to cost school districts any more than is appropriate, than what's intended."
Some supporters say the bill could actually save on local costs, with fewer placement hearings and drawn-out lawsuits when parents aren't satisfied with the services provided by districts.
Katonah attorney Peter Hoffman said he believed the bill, if passed, would cut down on the number of lawsuits brought by families given the new consideration for family life and cultural circumstances.
"I support the change because the current system leads to litigation that is
typically not completed until years after the actual school year in question
occurred," said Hoffman, whose practice focuses on children with disabilities.
Through the resolution, districts also say there may be alternative ways to both streamline how placement challenges are settled and ensure parents receive timely reimbursements when warranted while achieving cultural sensitivity.
List of School Districts that Have Approved a Resolution, according to the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association
Calling Upon Governor Cuomo to Veto Legislation A10722a - S7722a
- Bedford Central Schools
- Blind Brook-Rye UFSD
- Brewster CSD
- Chappaqua CSD
- Croton-Harmon UFSD
- Eastchester UFSD
- Haldane CSD
- Harrison CSD
- Katonah-Lewisboro UFSD
- Lakeland CSD
- Ossining UFSD
- Pelham UFSD
- Pleasantville UFSD
- Pocantico Hills CSD
- Putnam/N. Westchester BOCES
- S. Westchester BOCES