Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
The Department of Education needs to do a better job of monitoring the bills it pays to providers of special education services, according to a report released Thursday by the New York City comptroller's office.
The audit examined how the D.O.E. reviews invoices submitted by individual consultants who contract with the city to provide services in schools. The report found some "sloppiness," said Comptroller John Liu, including instances where the city paid for services that were recorded to have happened in the middle of the night or on holidays. Some providers allegedly padded their invoices with more hours, the report said.
In short, consultants billed for services that, in many cases, appeared to have never happened, leaving some parents bewildered when they received confirmation notices of the services from city education officials.
"Please send me more information. I don't know what you are talking about," responded one parent on a verification letter. Other parents responded that they did not recognize the name of the provider, while some asserted that their children never, in fact, received services at home. One parent responded that her child did not even require occupational therapy services that the city recorded in its system.
The scope of the audit covered fiscal years 2010 and 2011. Findings show that education officials missed inconsistencies in paper invoices, such as when consultants charged for hours worked on federal holidays. And in many cases, possible fraudulent electronic invoices slipped through established checks and balances. For instance, the D.O.E. has an electronic system that is meant to reject billing errors for odd hours. But many of those invoices made it through.
The audit also identified three consultants with particularly egregious invoices, charging the D.O.E. a total of $34,000 in one month for services provided after school. One consultant regularly submitted bills for 15-hour days. The consultants have not yet been identified, as the findings have been turned over to the city's Special Commissioner of Investigation, said Matthew Sweeney, a spokesman for the comptroller's office.
The report makes 12 recommendations to the D.O.E. to improve its monitoring practices, and education officials said they have implemented most of them already.
"We are confident that those actions have improved the controls in our billing processes," said Erin Hughes, a department spokeswoman. The comptroller's office made a special point of commending the D.O.E. for moving quickly to implement changes.
To see the full report and D.O.E. response, click here.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the audit focused on individual consultants, rather than on corporate entities or other institutions.