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Queens Chronicle

Liu: Special Ed database a ‘lemon’

Says system is riddled with glitches; DOE: Audit is election-year politics

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Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 10:53 am, Thu Aug 1, 2013.

City Comptroller and Democratic mayoral candidate John Liu released the results of an audit Monday that said the Department of Education’s Special Education Student Information System, that compiles information on the more than 221,000 students in special education programs citywide, is deficient.

The DOE started using the $67 million database, known as SESIS, in 2010 in order to help its Special Education Program meet state and federal reporting requirements for receiving Medicaid funds. It replaced the two previous databases — the Child Assistance Program and Automate the Schools.

Liu’s audit found that SESIS is not meeting its goal of providing a reliable and efficient online student database for instructors and administrative staff.

“After spending four years and $67 million dollars on this technology, the DOE has stuck teacher and administrators with a costly lemon,” Liu said in a press release. “The city is losing hundreds of millions of dollars for Special Education because it can’t file accurate reimbursement claims. Enough is enough, we’ve already seen that the DOE does not provide one-quarter of the available direct student services; parents shouldn’t suffer further belt-tightening and subpar service because the DOE can’t manage its technology,” he said.

The audit shows that SESIS has been plagued by errors in student data since the agency began transferring information over to it from the two predecessor databases. A total of 100,346 errors were found in April and 107,033 errors in March. But that is a dramatic decrease from 404,391 errors found in September 2012.

In addition, hundreds of student records had to be manually deleted from SESIS because they were wrongly duplicated in the new system, including 483 student records in April alone.

The audit also found that three-quarters of its users were poorly trained and many complained about their lack of adequate training in using the system.

“The system logs you off for no reason, says ‘timed out,’” said one user in a survey obtained from Liu’s office. “This is a major problem because it could take an hour to complete a task that should take five minutes.”

Liu’s audit also identified numerous Internet server problems, recorded more than 500 calls a day to the program’s help desk and expressed concern about the safety of the information.

In a statement released shortly after the audit, the DOE defended the program, saying that many of the problems found in the audit have been taken care of, and decried Liu’s probe as election-year politics meant to help his mayoral prospects.

“The Special Education Student Information System has radically increased the availability and accuracy of student information, and has made it possible for educators and families to better serve our students with special needs,” the statement read. “The comptroller’s decision to waste taxpayer money on a premature and shoddy audit is unfortunate, since it provided no new substantive recommendations on how SESIS could be improved.

“There have been well-publicized issues with SESIS in past years, and we have worked to address them. In fact, we have already instituted the majority of the audit’s recommendations, which is one of several reasons that the audit is deficient. This is an election year and it is imperative that the agenda of candidates for higher office not affect the running of the school system,” the statement said.

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