Employees of the state-run administration of the Newark schools may have tampered with documents essential for determining whether the state-operated district is complying with a federal court decision designed to ensure the city’s special education children are receiving services required by law. Priscilla Petrosky, a court-appointed monitor reported that some obviously phony records “compromised” the validity of assurances given to the court that the district was trying to comply with its order.
Petrosky also said the obvious manipulation of special education files raised issues about the “credibility” and “legitimacy” of documents the district’s state-appointed employees produced to prove it was complying with the court order.
The Education Law Center, which brought the underlying federal case on behalf of the city’s special education children, issued a statement indicating it had asked the state Attorney General to “investigate whether anyone in NPS may have engaged in improper employment conduct or violated any laws. ”
Petrosky found undated letters–all uniformly worded– in student files that contradicted other information in those files, leading her to believe they did not accurately reflect how well the district was complying with the federal court order handed down in 2012. The order imposed strict deadlines on the district for providing essential services to special needs children.
Indeed, Petrosky wrote, the state of the files indicates that–despite earlier assurances of progress from the state-run district–the leaders of the Newark schools may have made no progress at all.
Probably the most damning evidence of deliberate tampering with the files is contained in Petrosky’s finding that the questionable documents were contained only in files that were given to the monitor for review. The monitor could not look at all files. The Education Law Center reported:
“The Court-appointed Monitor overseeing a class action settlement to improve special education in the State-operated Newark Public Schools (NPS) has raised serious questions about the validity of a key record in the NPS files of children seeking special education services. The questionable records are uniformly written, undated letters containing the date for determining whether NPS has complied with a Court-imposed, 90-day deadline for providing services to children with disabilities. The letters were found only in those files taken from district schools to the NPS central office for purposes of the Monitor’s review. “
The basic issue is whether assurances given by the state-operated district to the court-appointed monitor–assurances that some progress had been made in servicing the children–were deliberately falsified. Elizabeth Athos, the senior attorney for the law center, reported:
“The Monitor’s findings that the records may not be authentic suggest the undated letters placed in students’ files may have been an attempt by an employee or employees of the State-operated NPS to improperly raise the district’s compliance rate.
“As NPS’s self-reported progress in meeting court-imposed deadlines has inched forward over the last three years, the all-important rate at which that progress can be verified by the Monitor has sharply dropped.”
The monitoring of the special education program was part of a settlement of a class-action law suit entitled M.A. v. Newark Public Schools. The settlement also required the district to improve identification and evaluation of students and to achieve a 95 percent compliance rate in “identifying, evaluating, and implementing” individualized education programs for eligible children within 90 days, according to the law center.
In July, the district informed the monitor it had achieved a 48 percent “success rate” in servicing special needs students. But, in reviewing the documents, Petrosky found only a compliance rate of 17 percent–and that figure assumes the questionable records were, in fact, legitimate.
If consideration of the possibly phony documents is eliminated, Petrosky reported, the actual compliance rate would be 0 percent.
Special needs students have been special victims of the state-run operation of Newark schools. Members of the city’s child study teams (CSTs) that evaluate children have reported that top officials of the state-run district have pushed them to talk parents out of seeking special help for their disabled children. Other educators have reported the Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) of some special needs children have been changed without the consent of parents.
At the same time, while nearly tripling the amount of public funds (from $91 million to $225 million) going to the city’s privately-operated charter schools–which take few, if any, special needs students–the state has sharply cut back on funding for the city’s neediest students. The law center reported:
“A major obstacle to improving special education services is the deep budget cuts made by NPS over the last three years. These cuts have had a major impact on the delivery of special education. In 2011-12, Newark spent $14,139 per classified student on the delivery of special education supports and services. By 2014-15, per pupil spending had fallen 18% to $11,482. The statewide average special education cost in New Jersey’s school funding formula in 2014-15 was $15,596.
“The major reason for these cuts is the Christie Administration’s refusal to provide all public school districts with the aid increases required by the State’s funding formula. In 2015-16, NPS was underfunded by over $130 million in state aid.”
“This latest report from the Monitor shows the State-operated NPS simply lacks the commitment and capacity to meet the needs of children with disabilities under federal and state law,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director.
“The Christie Administration has chronically underfunded the district, while allowing charter school payments to grow every year with no assessment of the impact on the delivery of special education services. Children with disabilities are far from the public spotlight surrounding school reform in Newark. Their plight, however, is becoming more dire and desperate.”