Opinion: Cut Waste at Education Dept. Before Negotiating Teachers Contract

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - 04:00 AM

School photos, classroom, students (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Mayor Bill de Blasio faces the prospect of negotiating 152 municipal labor contracts that were left unresolved by his predecessor. While there is debate about whether the city will have enough money to grant raises to city workers, one thing is clear: the settlement with the United Federation of Teachers will be particularly challenging.

Teachers have not had a raise in four years during which time they have absorbed new responsibilities and changes. Meanwhile, the Department of Education has become a sinkhole of wasted money.

Before the mayor and the United Federation of Teachers sit down, I suggest the mayor looks closely at how the D.O.E. has spent its annual $20 billion budget for the last few years. I predict there will be plenty of waste found, maybe enough to pay for a fair contract.

Consider the following areas of misspent dollars: 

  • Special Education Student Information System (SESIS): The city comptroller’s office estimates that the D.O.E. has spent $67 million to build an online system to track documentation connected with special education students and intends to spend another $12 million to “finish” it, a total of $79 million for a system that users can barely operate. The comptroller’s audit said that “SESIS is not meeting its overall goals” and that the D.O.E. “did not take necessary steps to ensure that the SESIS system and its data are protected and secured.”
  • Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS): The D.O.E. made many promises on behalf of this technology system--that it would revolutionize “data-driven” analysis of student achievement and allow previously unimaginable levels of teacher interaction. ARIS cost at least $80 million to build but was so poorly designed that schools paid thousands of dollars from their own budgets to procure their own add-ons so that it could be marginally useful. The city merged ARIS into a state-built and funded system and teachers are forced to use the mongrel system to little useful end. Money flushed down the drain.
  • High School Application Processing System (HAPS): The city built a system to manage high school assignments online. It spent $23 million to build it (originally estimated at $3.6 million) and abandoned it before it could ever be used.
  • Non-Competitively Bid Contracts: The state and city have procurement regulations that require agencies to use competitive bid processes in order to assure that they buy goods and services at the lowest possible prices. The state comptroller found that in the two fiscal years ending June 30, 2010 the DOE had used non-competitive or single-source bid processes for nearly $350 million in procurements and that “lack of documentation supporting the justification for the contracts….significantly diminishes assurances that D.O.E.’s non-competitive contracts are justified.”
  • Failure to Claim Federal Medicaid Reimbursement for Related-Services for Students with Disabilities: In 2011, the New York Times found that the D.O.E. had failed to recover tens of millions of dollars in Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to special needs children. The D.O.E. did not even submit claims for nearly $500 million in eligible reimbursements and repaid $432 million of the claims it did manage to make when a 2005 audit found that that they were entirely unsubstantiated.
  • Networks and School-Support Structure: The Children First Networks were set up to support school administrators by providing budget, hiring, professional development, curriculum and other support services. There are more than 60 networks scattered around the city, employing hundreds of people. Critics of the networks claim they have failed to make their schools more efficient. Turns out neither does the D.O.E.’s own $375,000 consultant, The Parthenon Group, brought on last year to assess the networks. Every school in the city is allocated $50,000 to procure Network support totaling approximately $77 million, with indirect costs buried in the DOE’s central budget bringing the total to more than $90 million.  

The D.O.E. has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on poorly-performing or abandoned technology projects. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on services using non-competitive bidding processes. The D.O.E. left hundreds of millions of Medicaid-reimbursable dollars on the table and was forced to repay to the federal and state governments much of what it managed to claim. The networks have wasted nearly $100 million a year on school-support services of questionable value.

Many of the city’s teachers rightfully are concerned that they may be required to offer up “give-backs” without any actual raises included in the final contracts.

Before teachers are pressed to accept anything other than a fair contract, the D.O.E. needs to identify ways to reform its willfully incompetent management of the school system’s resources by reducing administrative overhead, fraud and abuse  -- and by opening its books for complete inspection by parents, teachers and education policymakers.

Nothing less would be fair.


Harris Lirtzman


Comments [9]

Teacher from Brooklyn

I am really glad someone finally found the courage and decided to speak up about this topic: Waste of funds in NYC schools is a fact. We all see waste everywhere but are afraid of even mention anything. Teachers are intimidaded by the administration, specially the untenured ones. The "small schools system" is a set-up to keep things hush. Usually there are four schools in a building; they do not interact and only know their own students. A Dean from each school has to be in the front desk during students' entrances. There's waste of money in construction, food, uniforms(different unifoms with each schools'colors), signs, flags, etc. Waste in instructional material is unmeasurable, specially electronics. If a computer is outdated or slows down is replaced with brand new ones. Senseless staff developments are a waste of instructional time and money.

Feb. 17 2014 12:37 PM
Jams from Brooklyn

While I agree with much of what is written here, notably the waste of the networks, I strongly disagree with the assessment of SESIS. First, it is easy to use. Ridiculously easy. I'm not sure anyone who uses SESIS thinks it is difficult "to operate". It's a website. I understand that some folks disliked it at the start because it required computers and increased accountability, but actual sped teachers, RS providers, and CSE staff have accepted it and come to like it.

It has vastly improved record keeping. It helps teachers immensely when they have new students because they can see their records within a day of them being assigned in ATS rather than hoping someone sends the records or makes a trip to one of the many record rooms scattered in CSEs theoughout the city. It's also helped improve the quality of IEPs by making areas mandatory, while in the past, teachers would leave significant portions blank, especially management needs. It has also increased timeliness for evaluations and revaluations, which used to languish for months.

I challenge the author to report the sources and provide more supporting details to explain his assessment of SESIS and to speak to folks who use it.

Jan. 31 2014 09:32 AM
Barb from Queens

Here's another big waste going on right now: the January administration of NY State Regents Exams. H.S. teachers spend most of January and most of June doing NYS testing and marking them; they could add about 3 more weeks of genuine instruction each year if NYS confined testing to the end of the year. By the way, the Regents test for a totally different thing in a completely different way and the curricula is not the same as CC. It's all about making kids, parents and teachers crazy...not about learning anything!

Jan. 29 2014 03:30 PM
paul hogan from Bronx

Briefly last year, (*very* briefly, at it turns out) I detected the puzzling yet unmistakeable scent of panic in the air as the NYC education bureaucracy --- from Bloomberg to Walcott to Mulgrew --- pondered the prospect of Eliot Spitzer in the NYC comptroller's office, with its jurisdiction over DOE contracts, among many other things.

>>>>The former attorney general, who shot to stardom as the “Sheriff of Wall Street,” said he thinks he (can) have a a significant impact on the comptroller’s office, giving it a more activist role.

“The metaphor is what I did with the attorney general’s office,” he told the paper. “It is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction.”>>>>>

Alas... the establishment pulled together as never before, managed to make the contest about sex ( It *never* fails.) defeated Sheriff Spitzer and our ancient and not-so-holy economic order was preserved.

Which makes Mr. Lirtzman's analysis all the more timely.....even urgent. This piece doesn't explain everything about the fiscal dysfunction in NYC DOE but it explains enough.

Jan. 29 2014 07:20 AM
Zulma Villalba

Harris Lirtzman was never assigned to a rubber room nor was he ever fired. He decided to retire. I commend him for bravely standing up to the principal, Ms. Laboy-Wilson, and for always fighting for the needs of the kids. Harry was a very dedicated teacher who enjoyed teaching, seeing kids embrace math and fulfilling his goal, to teach to those kids that are challenged.

Since his retirement, he found a new calling in life which never left the realm of education. He now educates the public by informing them of the city's fiscal irresponsibility and their labor relation negligence and he does this by posting articles in the M.O.R.E.’s blogsite.

Thank you for your continued service as an educator. Your effort to inform the public on the DoE’s disgraceful waste should be commended.

Jan. 28 2014 09:28 PM
Dan Lupkin from Brooklyn

Educators have known about this profligate waste on inane initiatives for a long time...Bloomberg may have dumped money into the Department of Education, as he claimed, but where did it go? Certainly not into the classrooms. I hope this very thorough piece will play a part in awakening NYC taxpayers to just how badly Bloomberg fouled up the NYC public schools. Teacher salaries and benefits are not the issue, and they never have been.

Jan. 28 2014 04:14 PM
Megan Moskop

You can read more by Harry, and other educators writing about how to make our school system better for students at teachers on the Movement of Rank and File Educators Blog:

You can also join MORE to discuss the connect between high-stakes testing, teacher, parent, and student rights this weekend at:

Jan. 28 2014 10:55 AM
Peter Lamphere

Harris Lirtzman blew the whistle on violations of students special education rights under federal law.

He was denied tenure by the principal and decided to retire. But a state education investigation found that his reports were correct. There is some great reporting by Michael Powell on the case

I'm sure this isn't Joel Klien who is commenting, but he shows a similar disregard for basic research and the facts as his namesake.

Jan. 28 2014 09:44 AM

Isn't this the same Harris Lirtzman that was placed in the Rubber Room and eventually fired?

Jan. 28 2014 08:53 AM

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