After almost a decade of complaints, malfunctions and payments of more than $73 million to thousands of UFT members to compensate them for work outside school hours, the Department of Education is finally pulling the plug on the $130 million Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) that it launched in 2011.
While not offering details about how long the phase-out of the troubled system will take, DOE officials said it will be more than a year before they can begin to build a new system.
“SESIS was a source of constant frustration for our members,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “They toiled countless hours entering data — an investment of time and energy that did nothing to improve the education or well-being of the students they served. I give a lot of credit to Chancellor Richard Carranza for saying enough is enough.”
Mulgrew said the chancellor had told him the DOE was committed to working with special education service providers in building the new system.
Hundreds of UFT members responded jubilantly to the news on the UFT Facebook page, but they also expressed concern about what might replace it.
SESIS was created to consolidate information about students with disabilities in a single online data system. From the start, it was plagued with breakdowns — thousands reported in a single day — redundancies and slowness caused by heavy traffic that forced teachers to log data for thousands of hours outside school hours, including on weekends and holidays.
These glitches were responsible for the loss of $373 million in Medicaid reimbursements to the city.
Beyond the myriad technical issues, UFT Vice President for Special Education MaryJo Ginese said the system never did what it was designed to do.
“Rather than bringing providers together to discuss children’s needs, SESIS isolated them,” she said. “The entry of data became the critical element of the system, not how the data would help students learn.”
The system did not enable staff to pool their knowledge about each student and better coordinate their work. It allows only one staffer to work on an Individualized Education Program at a time, and goals, for example, are sequenced in IEPs based on when the teacher or provider is able to enter the information, rather than area of need.
Early on, the UFT created a special form to track the problems facing frustrated users, and over the ensuing years the union kept the pressure on by filing grievances charging that members were being compelled to do SESIS work outside regular work hours. In a 2013 ruling, an arbitrator ordered the DOE to pay more than $40 million in back pay to 34,000 members and, when the DOE dragged its feet in making the promised improvements to the system, a second grievance resulted in a 2017 settlement of another $33 million to be divvied up among 37,000 UFT members who used SESIS.
Kesha Hill, a speech teacher at PS 307 in Fort Greene, stressed the urgency of collaborating closely with special education teachers, assessment professionals and related service providers in building the replacement system.
“I’m afraid what comes next will be just as ineffective, unless the creators of the new system talk to us who work in it daily,” she said.
Hill said she hoped the next model would facilitate interaction among all the stakeholders who have a role in ensuring that a child gets the services delineated on the child’s IEP.
Michael Cappiello, a social worker at J.M. Rapport HS for Career Development, also said he hoped UFT members would be “part of the conversation” in developing a new system.
Cappiello was a member of the UFT group of SESIS users who shared their experiences with the DOE as it worked on system improvements in the summer of 2016. “That was a great experience,” he said, “and should indicate the importance of such a partnership in the future.”