Opinion

The NYC Board of Education puts students and their service providers last

Ryan Wallerstein Contributor
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By failing to promptly pay therapists for their work with New York City (NYC) school children, the Board of Education (BOE) is damaging both the practitioners’ livelihoods and children’s access to services.

Three months after the beginning of the school year in NYC, many private contractors who bill the Board of Education (BOE), including speech therapists, physical therapists and occupational therapists who treat developmental delays, are working for free. Not because they are Mother Theresas, but because the BOE has yet to pay them.

One of the main reasons they still await payment lies with the billing process itself. In order to get paid, therapists need a BOE Personal Identification Number (PIN) for each child they work with. To produce these PINs, a BOE bureaucrat must input each child’s information into a simple computer program. Once the PINs are issued, therapists can then input each child’s information into an online BOE system, which is then prompted to cut them a check.

But without the PINs, they cannot be paid. And if they’re not paid, the system begins to break down.

Friends of mine operating within the BOE system are dismayed.  No matter how many times they follow up with the BOE Borg, they almost never hear anything back. Rarely do the bureaucrats respond to their calls or emails. In many cases, they pass the buck from one vapid administrator to another, until the therapists get lost in a black hole. More than one of my friends has sent her paperwork to the BOE over three times, and was still told her information was never received.

Are we living in NYC or Soviet-era Moscow?

Since the BOE is operated by largely unaccountable bureaucrats, it’s no surprise that the system is broken. No matter how long the BOE takes to pay service providers, its own workers continue collecting their checks. Whether the bureaucrats are diligent or inept, their jobs are basically bulletproof. Why should they care when nobody is held to account?

Perhaps most importantly, BOE inaction injures not only therapists, but innocent children, too. The countless hours that physical therapists spend tracking down elusive BOE administrators for payment could be better spent treating untold numbers of developmentally-challenged children.

Moreover, the more the practitioners grow frustrated, the less likely they are to continue treating children who receive services through the BOE. Why deal with the headaches when they can drop underprivileged children for private clients that pay on time? Who pays the ultimate price? The kids, of course.

Sadly, therapists have little recourse in the current paradigm. They can only call and email the BOE so many times. And make no mistake — they are wary of BOE retaliation if they push too hard. Instead of getting paid, they could instead find themselves targeted for further delays by the BOE albatross.

The NYC BOE and its counterparts in other American cities are entrenched powers unlikely to change their ways without serious public action. Until we have the courage to speak out and hold the BOE responsible for putting children first, therapists and students alike will continue to suffer. We allow this to continue at the peril of vulnerable children in cities across the country.

Ryan Wallerstein served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence from 2004-2006. He holds a master’s degree in international security policy from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Tags : medicine
Ryan Wallerstein