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Governor signs educational funds oversight bill

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This week New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed several bills into law, one of which, S5568A, now gives the New York comptroller authority to audit funding expenditures for some 400 private providers of special education services to preschoolers in the state. Over $1.4 billion dollars of Education Department funds are allocated annually to serve about 75,000 very young children with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities.

The bill had been heavily lobbied by State Controller Thomas DiNapoli after initial investigations last year uncovered a myriad of misspent funds. While the state Education Department manages such programs, State Education commissioner John King and other officials have admitted that the department didn’t have a team of auditors that could provide oversight of taxpayer funds; the department has instituted new enforcement measures. The new law requires the comptroller to audit all preschool special education providers by March 31, 2018.

Eighteen audits so far have found over $16.5 million of improper payments for no-show jobs, bonuses and raises, uncertified teachers, and reimbursements for personal uses expenditures on cars, travel, home furnishings, entertainment, and landscaping, according to an article in the December 18 Times Union. Five people were arrested and three have pled guilty.

Audits included providers in the Capital Region, one of which found salary payments to a provider living in Myrtle Beach, SC. Other abuses included $12000 spent on a home entertainment system, a Disney World vacation, and concert tickets to Phish and Dave Matthews Band performances.

One report released this year alleged that the Yonkers-based Westchester School for Special Children overcharged taxpayers $800,000 over four years, including giving contracts to family members. The sum included a $100,000 lobbying contract with the firm of former state Sen. Nick Spano. The school’s executive director is his brother, Leonard Spano. The school has disputed the findings.

The bill mandates the comptroller to audit both providers and the state office monitoring them. It also requires stricter controls over some special education evaluations and placements.

Many parents and providers within the special education community have welcomed the added oversight. Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State wrote a letter in support of the legislation, urging the governor’s signature because the bill “takes prudent and reasonable steps to ensure that public funds are used appropriately while not restricting appropriate options for preschool children with special needs.”

While the new power of oversight can save New York taxpayers millions of dollars that can be spent appropriately to serve the needs of special education children, a daunting task looms for those actually doing the work of auditing. Four years leaves a lot of gap time for all audits to happen, and proactive searching must be rigorously implemented by the auditors.

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