We join with County Executive Gregory Edwards in urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include in the budget he will propose in the new year reforms of the overly expensive preschool special education program.
These reforms are a long time coming. The program itself is well-intentioned and certainly as a society we mean to do well by our children. But the structure of the program to provide special services to special needs children ages 3 and 5 has never made sense. Conflicts of interest abound and the people who spend the money have no accountability to the people who pay for it.
The preschool special education program is designed to provide services - counseling as well as speech, occupational, and physical therapy - to special needs children between the ages of 3 and 5. Generally the services are provided by private-sector contractors.
A series of audits of 18 programs by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli last spring found millions of taxpayer dollars were misspent as well as instances of outright criminal fraud. One audit found, for example, that the head of a company in Brooklyn billed taxpayers for his wife's $150,000 salary as his assistant director when she was a full-time professor at the City University of New York.
The New York Times in June also noted owners of a company in upstate used more than $800,000 to pay rent and interest to themselves and a full-time salary of an executive who lived in South Carolina and seldom worked.
That's not to say every program in every county, including our own, is suspect. But a lot of money is involved - $3.8 million for 456 children in Chautauqua County for the 2008-09 school year. It is paid by county government through the property tax, although the county has no input nor oversight of how nor why the the money is spent.
A task force has come up with sensible reforms for the program that are supported by the New York Association of Counties and the governor.
Transportation: Allow counties greater input in placement decisions and the appropriate type of transportation for each child. Although counties are responsible for 40.5 percent of the costs, they do not have a say in determining the placement of a child. Those decisions are made entirely by school districts and parents without regard to whether the chosen provider is the most cost-efficient.
Reassess the state's transportation stipend: Counties spend some $90 million a year transporting preschool special education students and every year each county has exceeded the state's capped stipend. Counties have no control over transportation decisions and yet are responsible for 100 percent of the cost above the state's stipend.
Require an arm's length relationship between the evaluator and the provider of services: Eliminate conflicts of interest and relationships that have resulted in significant fraud, waste, and abuse of taxpayers' dollars in other areas around the state.
Shared fiscal incentive program: Establish a savings target or cap on an annual basis that would reward school districts and counties for providing quality preschool special education services in a thoughtful and cost-effective manner.
As we said, a program to provide special services to special children is laudable. But we do not have to break the bank doing it.
The governor should incorporate the task force recommendation in his executive budget this coming spring.