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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Nonprofits that serve special ed students vexed by long delays in payments

Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón

By The Star Staff

Despite being one of the island agencies with the highest budget, the Education Department has neglected to make timely payments to providers of services to special needs students.

The information came out Wednesday at a hearing of the Special Committee for Legislative Monitoring of the Department of Education’s (DE) Special Education Program to address Senate Resolution 42, which proposes to investigate the lack of diligence in the disbursement of payments owed for services provided to special education students.

“We are here to discuss the issue of delayed payments for those services that correspond to special education students. These delays sometimes take months,” stressed Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón, who chairs the committee. “The matter has reached such seriousness that there are institutions that cannot continue receiving students.”

The senator said the agency has two ways of paying: direct payment to the institution, with the school sending the invoice to the agency, and reimbursement, the process in which families pay the private school and then bill the department.

During its presentation, the Pequeño Campeón de Jesús Foundation, a nonprofit that provides services to children with special needs through the DE model, noted that during the 2022-2023 academic year, the first payment it received was on Jan. 9 for only one month of service.

During the 2014-2015 academic year, they did not receive payments, which caused them to have to resort to an administrative hearing in which the administrative judge issued a direct payment resolution in May 2015, according to school director David E. Jiménez Toro. In addition, in August 2015, the Special Education Legal Division denied the invoices for direct deposit payments, which caused the appellate court to submit a resolution in favor of the parents so that the DE would pay for purchases of services and not for reimbursement.

“It is frustrating because the Department of Education is the agency that receives the most funds annually and they are supposed to be used to providing an excellent and dignified educational service for all children,” Jiménez Toro said.

Caguas Learning Academy, another nonprofit, also faced payment delays. Since 2016, they have participated in the program for the purchase of educational services in the reimbursement modality, which means, according to their presentation, that parents pay for the service and then the DE reimburses the money paid for the educational services provided as outlined in the student’s Individualized Educational Plan. After this, they go to the option of direct payment to the institution, a modality that the DE created to “be able to place emergency students in unique institutions that provide specialized, less restrictive services that are adjusted to the student’s needs.”

Regarding payments that cannot be reconciled, the Caguas Learning Academy director said there is no agreement with what is sent in the invoice, since the DE issues payments that are less than what is invoiced.

Meanwhile, the directors of the institutions providing services charged that the DE has not issued payment for assistants of some of their students, even though they are approved. Likewise they said, the failure to make payment compromises the stability of their institutions; the salaries of their educators, assistants, nurses and therapists, among others; and the costs associated with lines of credit to meet these amounts due to the lack of punctuality in the DE’s payments.

“These children come to these institutions because the highest educational authority in the country refuses to give them the services they need,” the deponents said. “Who has all the money to offer you these services? The state, but they put people who know nothing about special education to work to make life difficult for children. The state must understand that these children will stay children, even if they are 30 or 40 years old. Being in a classroom with a child with disabilities would open the eyes of anyone in the country. We are in a real state of emergency.”

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