With special education costs expanding rapidly, the city Department of Education says new contracts signed this summer will save taxpayers money. But in the first of several exclusive stories on special education spending, NY1 education reporter Lindsey Christ takes a look at why some parents say it's bad for students and filed the following report.
When they return to school this week, thousands of students with special needs may find some of their most trusted educators missing. Many aides, therapists and counselors say they suddenly can't afford to return to their jobs, working with some of the city's most vulnerable students.
Jeri Gramegna was paid $20 an hour last school year. She recently learned her pay will be slashed in half. She says she can't manage on $10 an hour.
But it's the autistic teenager who Gramegna worked with who she worries will suffer.
"I've been with Nicolas for nine years. When I first met him, he was a very sad little boy, almost unresponsive on most days," recalls Gramegna.
Now Nicolas uses a machine to communicate. His mother says it's all because Gramegna learned how to program the device and has been helping Nicolas use it.
"Now we are going to be back to square one again, where there are going to be people who do not know the machine and that is going to set Nicolas back. That's so unfair to him," says Nicolas' mother, Maria Plunkett.
The pay cut comes from new city contracts, signed this summer, with private companies that provide school aides. In the past, the Department of Education directly contracted and paid many hourly special education workers like Gramegna.
But now the city is trying to use job placement agencies to fill most of those 18,000 positions. The DOE says the new contracts will standardize the process, save money and provide more options for schools to quickly fill positions in areas like speech or physical therapy.
But the agencies are putting the squeeze on the educators. Up to 45 percent of what the DOE pays per hour won't go to the therapists or aides but to the agencies that place them.
Parents worry good therapists, faced with up to a 50 percent pay cut, will leave and be replaced with workers who have less training. Nicolas's mom fears her son will once again be cut off.
"You are putting a tape over his mouth," says Plunkett.
And while the DOE says it will save, a lot more money is being funneled through the job placement agencies -- $638 million over the next three years -- almost double what the agencies were given under previous contracts.