Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation yesterday that authorizes the state comptroller to audit preschool special education providers every five years. Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli proposed the bill after finding fraud and improper use of finds in a series of audits of special-education providers. Over the summer, he released an audit critical of spending by the Westchester School for Special Children in Yonkers.
The new law also tightens weaknesses in the program, including how students are evaluated and placed in programs, and directs the state education department to study alternative systems of reimbursement methodologies and monitoring protocols. It requires that all providers for preschool children with disabilities be audited at least once by March 31, 2018.
DiNapoli said in a statement that he is gratified Cuomo signed the legislation to increase oversight of the providers in New York’s $1.4 billion special education program.
“Time and again, my audits have documented instances in which providers have abused or misused the money they were given to serve the 75,000 children in New York State with physical, developmental and emotional disabilities,” he said. “With a mandate to audit the providers of these services, we will work to ensure that taxpayer money goes to help the children who need it most.”
The comptroller’s audit of the Westchester School for Special Children found the school had overcharged taxpayers by more than $800,000 over four years and “engaged in questionable business transactions with companies connected to board members and executives.” The school, which serves children between 3 and 21, paid nine employees who were unqualified for their positions a total of $254,868. Auditors disallowed $112,734 in expenses for five vehicles because school officials couldn’t produce records to support the business use of the vehicles.
The school’s former executive director spent $17,072 for personal expenses, including $4,254 at a Harley Davidson dealer; $1,723 for lodging at the Majestic View Lodge near Zion National Park; $1,620 at a cigar store; and $369 at Victoria’s Secret, according to the audit. He eventually reimbursed the school, but he shouldn’t have used school funds for such expenses in the first place, it said.
DiNapoli said at the time that providers like the Yonkers school had been “taking advantage of lax state oversight to pad their own expenses.”