Special Ed students’ mothers to gov’t: Oppose fiscal board on $95M cut

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @pete_r_correa

Special to The Star

Mothers of students with functional diversity demanded on Wednesday that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia and the Legislature stand up to the federal Financial Oversight and Management Board on the $95 million cut to the Special Education program’s budget.

During a demonstration at the World Plaza Building in Hato Rey, island community organizations urged decision-makers to restore the funds as the reduction could compromise 111,024 Special Education students’ access to an adequate education.

“Not only will this affect the lives of 111,024 children, but this will take a toll on 111,024 families as we are in a precarious public health situation,” said Special Education Steering Committee spokesperson Carmen Warren.

Warren also said the budget cut implies the non-compliance of the Department of Education with the appointment of Special Education teachers, service assistants, sign language interpreters, psychologists and social workers to address the needs of the students who require those services.

She also said therapy sessions, the purchase of assistive equipment and compliance with COVID-19 protocols could be in jeopardy.

Puerto Rico Autism Alliance spokesperson Aida Ortiz said meanwhile that the $95 million budget cut could leave the Special Education staff jobless as Acting Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés acknowledged that “it was possible that there was money left until March to pay the teachers and service assistants’ payroll.”

“We are shocked to receive such an attack on our sons and daughters, who have suffered so much from the educational process during the pandemic, to the point that a large number of students in our community were unable to receive appropriate educational and related services,” Ortiz said.

She added that the budget cut includes a $20 million reduction to the Interim Remedial Office, which could limit low-income families’ access to essential services for Special Education students.

“We had enough to battle when parents faced great challenges to provide their children with adequate services and education,” she said. “Having this budget cut on our shoulders makes things worse than they were.”

Ortiz also called out the oversight board for transferring $6 million that was not used for Special Education transportation to cover a contract from a third party agent requested by the federal Department of Education to manage the agency’s budget.

“This trustee, a private company, will cost the country an exorbitant $40 million this year, and it is anticipated that its contract will be renewed for several years,” she said. “That money should be for our children, and not go to a company that has to watch over those responsible for funds mismanagement in the Department of Education.”

“If today we have so much funding through the COVID-19 emergency and then they choose to cut our budget, we wonder what is going to happen when this funding ends,” Ortiz added. “Will the Special Education Program disappear?”

Meanwhile, Jinnette Morales, spokesperson for the Children and Public Education Movement, said she considers it “incredible” how Pierluisi and his administration “celebrate an historic $4 billion budget assignment when they reduce the funds for the most vulnerable students of our education system.”

“The last administration closed 500 schools because they wanted to save money, and now they tell us that instead of having more money, there is more money missing than before?” Morales said.

She later urged members of the press to investigate if the oversight can transfer funds from the program when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “clearly establishes as a requirement for the granting of federal funds that the Department of Education determine how many resources it needs and then establishes a matching formula.”

Later in the day, the spokesperson for Senate Treasury Committee Chairman Juan Zaragoza, Betsy Nazario, told the STAR that the Popular Democratic Party legislator on Monday “requested from [the oversight board’s executive director] Natalie Jaresko information on the Special Education budget and to continue the conversation.”

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