Manhattan Borough President and possible 2013 mayoral candidate Scott Stringer blasted the New York City Department of Education at a press conference today following the publication of a New York Times report documenting the DOE’s failure to claim millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to students with special needs from 2006 to 2010. Mr. Stringer called for hearings investigating the missed reimbursements, which he described as a missed opportunity to curb school budget cuts and evidence of widespread problems at the DOE.
“This calls out for state and city hearings immediately, there’s no time to waste. This agency has been going down this perilous path for many years, but nobody could have imagined that, when it came for reimbursement, they would fail so miserably. I am shocked and I am outraged,” Mr. Stringer said.
Mr. Stringer was joined at the press conference by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew who said the failure to claim federal reimbursements for special education was particularly egregious since city schools are currently being forced to trim budgets by cutting staff and services.
“This is money that we have all paid for through our federal taxes and we have a right to get it back,” Mr. Mulgrew said. “The class sizes in New York City are now at levels that we have not seen since 1978. We have–every school has been cut to the bone and, at the same time, the Department of Education is leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of our children’s money at the federal level.”
Mr. Stringer said other school districts around the state received $558 million in federal reimbursements for special education costs during the same period. He sent Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott a letter in October expressing his concerns and asking for information about steps the department is taking to improve the Medicaid reimbursement process.
“They never responded to us, never acknowledged the letter. So, they’ve known about this and we’ve tried to get answers for many months,” said Mr. Stringer.
DOE spokeswoman Barbara Morgan told the New York Times that the department didn’t file claims for all of the funds it could have received because the reimbursement process has become “increasingly cumbersome” since new regulations were adopted in September 2009. The DOE recently spent $80 million on a computer database called the Special Education Student Information System that it expects to improve the reimbursement process. Mr. Stringer compared this approach to another city technology initiative– the CityTime payroll system, which cost $700 million and was plagued by fraud.
“You’ve got to admit it’s kind of embarassing for Buffalo to get this right and Syracuse to get this right–major cities with less of a population than we have of special needs kids,” Mr. Stringer said. “We have 168,000 special needs kids. Two-thirds of those kids would be eligible for this reimbursement and then their answer, like CityTime is to come up with yet another computer system at the cost of $80 million to try to fix this problem.”
Mr. Stringer said he blames the Bloomberg administration for this problem rather than Chancellor Walcott, who took office back in April after his predecessor, former Hearst Magazines exec Cathie Black, stepped down after a stormy 96 day tenure.
“This is not about Chancellor Walcott, who I happen to have great respect for. This is about an administration that is charged with running the school system and, when that system fails the taxpayers and the students, then we ask for more oversight,” Mr. Stringer said. “I mean, City Hall laid off 700 school aides with a straight face saying we had no choice to lay them off because we don’t have money and here, they’ve known all along that this money is sitting at the federal level.”
Mr. Stringer also made clear he plans to continue focusing on the problems he sees with the Department of Education as he gears up for a potential mayoral bid.
“If it was up to me right now, I would close the Tweed Building, get these bureaucrats to a system that actually works and stop throwing everything onto computer systems that are untested, listening to outside consultants that have actually taken New York City for a ride,” said Mr. Stringer. “This is not the end of this story today, this is a beginning that we’re going to be able to show time, after time, after time that the Department of Education has now become a bureaucracy of its own that’s now out of control.”