Local school districts are asking Gov. Andrew 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, Bedford Central's superintendent, a recent school board meeting.
A group of 16 Westchester-Putnam school boards—including Chappaqua and Bedford Central—have approved resolutions formally opposing the bill, which 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.
Last Wednesday, Chappaqua's school board voted in favor of the resolution calling on Cuomo, who is a New Castle town and Chappaqua school district resident, to veto the bill.
“This is so troublesome to me for so many reasons," Chappaqua school board Vice President Alyson Kiesel said, arguing that it is yet another unfunded mandate and that it may conflict with existing law.
Chappaqua's board members discussed whether the bill would create a situation where religious schools get preference in the special education placement process.
School board President Victoria Tipp said, “The concerning aspect about this is that a family can claim those concerns, separate and apart from educational concerns, and claim that their child would do better academically in a religious institution because of their family background. And that opens to the door to a lot of special placements, which are very expensive.”
Assemblyman Robert Castelli (R-Goldens Bridge) said he supported some of the ideas behind the bill but voted no on the bill.
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 Wall Street Journal. "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.
A copy of the resolution is posted with this story.
List of School Districts or other entities that Have Approved a Resolution, according to the Westchester-Putnam School Boards Association
Calling Upon Governor Cuomo to Veto Legislation A10722a - S7722a
- Bedford CSD
- 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
Tom Auchterlonie contributed to this story.