time for an upgrade

New York City reveals new plans to upgrade its dysfunctional special education data system

The city’s deeply flawed special education data system will soon have a new group of staff members dedicated to fixing its longstanding problems.

Education officials confirmed Friday that the department has created a dozen new full-time positions for staffers to help fix the Special Education Student Information System, known as SESIS. The city also plans to spend about $6.3 million over five years for software upgrades and additional maintenance.

But the extent to which those investments will fix the system, which is used to track learning plans for the city’s 212,000 students with disabilities, remains to be seen.

SESIS has been mired in technical problems since it was launched in 2011 and has cost the city at least $130 million to develop. Early on, the glitchy, burdensome system resulted in so many educators entering information at night and on the weekends that an arbitrator forced the city to pay out $38 million in overtime.

More recently, officials have said the system’s inability to communicate with other databases of student information have made it impossible to precisely track whether students are receiving required services. And the city’s public advocate filed a lawsuit this February alleging SESIS has resulted in the loss of $356 million in Medicaid reimbursements.

An education department official said the new positions — five of which have already been filled — and improved software would ease some of those problems, promising more accurate data collection, an “enhanced ability” to collect money from Medicaid, and a better user experience for teachers.

Education officials under Chancellor Carmen Fariña have acknowledged the need to overhaul the system and convened a multi-agency working group last spring to find ways to improve it.

“Fixing SESIS remains a top priority,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement. “We are aggressively working to address the concerns and continue to take significant steps to improve the system.”

Special education advocates said they are encouraged that the city is committing to new staff and software upgrades, but remain concerned about the scope and pace of the changes. Also unclear is whether parents will gain access to the system, a longtime request from parents that city officials have said is a long-term goal.

“We know the DOE is working on fixing it, but we don’t know what that looks like, or who’s doing it, or what happens in the interim,” said Lori Podvesker, a disability policy manager at IncludeNYC and a member of the city’s Panel for Education Policy, which votes on education policy changes and contracts. “I’m encouraged, but I question why this hasn’t been a priority sooner.”

To upgrade the system’s software, the city is in the final stages of contracting with PowerSchool Group LLC, the company that now owns the underlying program. That contract is going through the city’s Department of Information Technology and Communications, not the education department.

That raised concerns for Public Advocate Letitia James, who is currently suing the city over SESIS.

“It is extremely troubling that the DOE is planning to contract with a vendor that is using the initial SESIS software that has left so many children behind and cost taxpayers millions,” James wrote in a statement. “I am even more disturbed that the DOE is trying to once again circumvent the [Panel for Education Policy] entirely to get this contract approved — a practice we have seen in the past.”

The education department’s Holness insisted the contract to upgrade SESIS software “is going through the city’s rigorous public hearing and contracting process,” but did not dispute that the contract is being handled by the city’s information technology department because of their “expertise in overseeing complex technology projects,” and would therefore not be subject to a vote from the education policy panel.

Still, those who have tracked SESIS for years said the city appeared to be headed in the right direction.

“This is an important component of what needs to be done,” said Roger Maldonado, an attorney in a decades-long class action lawsuit against the education department over the timely provision of special education services and assessments.

In the money

Here’s how Colorado schools would spend an extra $100 million from the state

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Hannah Moore, 8, shows off her moves during practice for an after school talent show that is part of the Scholars Unlimited After School program at Ashley Elementary school on March 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. Scholars Unlimited is an after school and summer program funded by the 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant, which is threatened to be cut entirely under the White House's budget cuts. The 21st Century Community Learning Center Grant served almost 20,000 students in Colorado between 2015 and 2016 and 76 percent of students showed academic improvement. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee unanimously decided this week to set aside $100 million to “buy down” the budget stabilization factor.

This number – $822 million in 2017-18 – is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to the constitutional requirement that spending on education increase every year based on student count and inflation. It’s more commonly known as the negative factor, though lawmakers are trying to get away from that term.

For several years now, lawmakers have held the negative factor steady, but this year, as Colorado has more money to spend than it has had in a long time, Gov. John Hickenlooper wanted to make a dent in it and requested the $100 million reduction. To be clear, a $100 million reduction in the negative factor is $100 million more that the state would send to districts. Technically, this number will be finalized in a separate piece of legislation, the School Finance Bill, which is coming any day now.

But state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, wanted to give some reassurance to educators that the money will be there in the budget. 

“It would send a message to our K-12 community that we are not spending that money and have set it aside,” she said.

And educators have been clamoring to hear that message. The Colorado School Finance Project has been running a social media campaign for the $100 million buydown using the hashtags #k12needsco and #kidsmattertoo.

The non-profit asked school superintendents around the state to say what they would do with the extra money, which translates to an additional $114 on average for each enrolled student, compared to holding the budget stabilization factor steady. The answers are identified by region, but not by district.

Here’s a small sample of the responses:

You can read all of them here.

The Joint Budget Committee has set total program spending on education at $7.75 billion before the negative factor is applied, up from $7.45 billion this year, a 4 percent increase. Of total program spending, the state will pay $4.4 billion, with the rest coming from local property taxes. This doesn’t include voter-approved tax increases known as mill levy overrides.

That translates to average per-pupil spending of $7,959, compared to $7,662 this year. A budget stabilization factor of $722 million would yield an average per-pupil amount closer to $8,074. 

The smaller budget stabilization factor is significant beyond just one budget year because state law says that this number shouldn’t get larger from one year to the next. However, Colorado superintendents are also pushing for a tax increase and change to the distribution of school money. It will take more than an additional $100 million spread among 870,000 students to address all the needs they identify in their responses to the Colorado School Finance Project.

Hickenlooper had also requested an additional $200 million for the state education fund, with the intention that that money be used to offset costs to districts from proposed changes to the public pension system and expected reductions in property tax revenue in rural communities.

The Joint Budget Committee instead voted to set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with fixing the Public Employees Retirement Association’s unfunded liability – but in the general fund rather than the state education fund and not specifically to help schools, where retirement costs account for a big chunk of the personnel budget.

The committee also agreed to set aside $30 million to help small rural districts with low tax bases and was supportive of setting aside $10 million to address rural teacher shortages, though some of the details are still being worked out.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”