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STATE HIRING FREEZE LEAVES PATERSON CHILDREN WITHOUT SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES

Newark NJ -- January 18, 2011

A hiring freeze ordered by the State Department of Education (DOE) on the Paterson school district is now impacting the speech-language services of elementary school children. This comes after the State freeze left hundreds of preschoolers with disabilities without special education and related services to which they are entitled under state and federal law.

Education Law Center (ELC) has filed two complaints with DOE on behalf of parents of children with disabilities at School Number 2 in Paterson. The complaints demand the immediate restoration of speech-language services, as well as compensatory services to make up for services missed since the school year began. Dozens of students with disabilities attending Paterson's School Number 2, a K-8 school, are entitled to receive speech-language services.

"The State's order to freeze hiring in Paterson without considering the impact on the delivery of federally-mandated services to children with disabilities is unconscionable," said Lauren S. Michaels, ELC attorney and Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Fellow. Ms. Michaels, along with Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos, are representing parents and children attending Paterson School Number 2, which include children with autism and severe language and learning disabilities.

At mid-November parent-teacher conferences, parents heard for the first time that their children had not been receiving speech-language services since the beginning of the school year.

"I had noticed that my son seemed to be regressing, but I was shocked to find out so late that he had been denied speech therapy all year, and that nobody in Paterson had bothered to tell us," said Miriam Rivera, whose son has autism, a disability that affects his language development. "As a parent, especially of a child with a serious disability, you depend on the school to educate your child appropriately, but Paterson has not lived up to its obligations."

After facing budget difficulties since at least last spring, the troubled Paterson school district reached out DOE for assistance. Over the summer, Paterson officials attempted to address its staffing needs for special education and other academic programs, but were rebuffed by State officials. In July, DOE denied a request to transfer $9 million from surplus to cover a projected budget deficit for the upcoming school year. School started in September with severe staff shortages and without necessary mandatory services in place. During this time, DOE was actively reviewing Paterson's finances without providing additional support to restore needed educational programs. On September 14, 2010, DOE imposed a freeze on all spending and hiring in the district, except for issues of health and safety, citing the need for further review of the district's budget. The State's fiscal review has yet to be completed, and the spending freeze remains in effect.

On October 14, 2010, Paterson Superintendent Donnie Evans, in an email to State officials, again raised red flags regarding the impact of the hiring freeze, stating that his "greatest concern at this time is special education, the academic core (math, English/language, science, and social studies), and ESL/Bilingual. Also note that while we are continuing to cut non-salary items from our budget to meet limited staffing needs, we are rapidly exhausting these possibilities and are now negatively impacting our efforts to improve student achievement."

ELC had filed a complaint with DOE in November on behalf of parents of preschool students with disabilities who were not receiving special education and related services. DOE has yet to complete its investigation and issue findings, which were due last week.

"The illegal denial of services to Paterson children continues, while DOE turns a blind eye to this desperate situation. The school year is half-over, and these children still aren't getting what they need," Michaels said.

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Lauren S. Michaels, Esq.
Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Fellow
email: lmichaels@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x15