The city’s school district has provided 11,623 hours of compensatory speech therapy it owes to special education students going back to the 2016-17 school year, according to the latest progress report issued by superintendent Eileen Shafer on Thursday afternoon.
A backlog of 26,696 hours of speech therapy remains. 9,671 from the 2016-17 school year and 17,025 hours from the 2017-18 school year. Almost 2,000 students were affected by the special education failure.
“We are making headway in providing the services our students need,” said Shafer. “There is still a significant backlog. Our work is far from over. But our special education services team has been providing compensatory service hours by the hundreds every month, and that is the result of a concerted and focused effort.”
Shafer, who was deputy superintendent in the 2016-17 school year, inherited the massive problem from her predecessor, state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans. In Jul. 2017, when she became superintendent after Evans’ departure from the district, she promised to get the students caught up.
School officials did not address the special education failures in the 2017-18 school year, according to a complaint the New Jersey Education Law Center filed with the New Jersey Department of Education late last year.
Shafer faced numerous problems in attempting to fix the problem. For example, speech specialists from a private vendor refused assignments at some schools citing safety concerns. She could not hire employees at market rate to provide the services due to opposition from the teachers’ union. She later reached an agreement with the union.
The district also faced funding problems. For example, Shafer said in December she could make a dent in the backlog if the cash-strapped district had $1.5 million. She hired 20 speech therapists last year, pushing the district’s total to 48, in an effort to tackle the problem.
School officials said the district provided 6,468 hours of compensatory speech therapy services as of Nov. 30, 2018. From Dec. 1, 2018 through May 30, 2019, the district provided an additional 5,155 hours of services, clocking the 11,623 hours of owed sessions provided so far.
“While our progress is encouraging, we will not be satisfied until our work is done in getting through this backlog and providing our students the services they need,” said Cheryl Coy, chief of special education at the Paterson Public Schools.
The problem began in Feb. 2017 when the district and a vendor, Kid Clan Services, were embroiled in a payment dispute. The district refused to pay the vendor because it was allegedly inflating invoices, according to Coy’s deposition transcript. She was deposed when the vendor filed a lawsuit for payment.
But the vendor has argued in court filings that the district made extraordinary demands that expanded scope of services.
School board members settled the payment dispute by paying $675,000 to Kid Clan Services last month. After the settlement was approved by the board, the Paterson Times asked district spokesman Paul Brubaker whether Shafer fired anyone for the colossal failure. Brubaker did not answer the question.
The district appears to be providing the mandated services to special education students in the current school year.
In early 2019, the school district began providing speech therapy sessions to students on Saturdays. That program will continue, said Brubaker on Thursday. The Saturday and after school speech therapy sessions will continue in the 2019-20 school year, he said.