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City Funding Delay Threatens Special Needs School on Upper West Side

By Emily Frost | July 15, 2013 6:34am | Updated on July 15, 2013 1:12pm
 The school is still seeking $1 million in DOE reimbursements for tuition, the Head of School said. 
The Robert Louis Stevenson School Faces Financial Hurdles
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A nonprofit private school serving teenagers with emotional and learning challenges is in jeopardy because the Department of Education has taken more than a year to pay students' tuition, school officials told DNAinfo New York.

The Robert Louis Stevenson School, which serves 63 kids in grades 8 through 12, is barely able to meet its payroll and may have to start turning needy students away if the city's payment delays continue, Head of School Doug Herron said.

"Each year [the DOE] gets a little slower in the timing of their payments," Herron said. "[The DOE's] message is, 'Don't rush this.'"

Nearly all families at the West 74th Street school rely on the city to pay their children's $51,000 tuition, after they successfully argue before independent arbitrators that the city's public schools cannot meet their kids' needs. 

This year, the city owed $1.3 million in tuition for Robert Louis Stevenson but had only paid $230,000 by early July, leaving the school with a shortfall of more than $1 million out of its annual $3 million budget, Herron said.

The city does not pay the tuition money to the school directly, but rather pays the students' parents, who then pass the money along to the school. About half the school's families pay the tuition out-of-pocket at the beginning of the year and wait to get reimbursed later, but those who cannot afford to do that attend the school for free and pay tuition whenever the DOE reimburses them — often more than a year later.

Herron said he worries that the school may have to start choosing wealthy families who can pay the tuition upfront over those who cannot.

"If there were competing students for a place, it is very likely a [student who couldn't pay upfront] would lose out because of the payment situation," he said.

A DOE spokesman, however, said reimbursements can only be dispersed when the proper paperwork is filed on time.

"We do not agree with the premise that reimbursement is slow," the spokesman, Marcus Liem, said. "If a parent does not file a due process complaint until the middle or end of a given school year, the resolution of the hearing or settlement would be similarly postponed.

"When the Department of Education offers to settle a case, the settlement requires timely provision of documentation from the parents and their counsel, engaged negotiation and cooperation, all of which are not always forthcorming," he added.

Still, parents at the school said the process of getting the tuition the city owes them is time-consuming, aggravating and expensive.

"Every year I have to fight the Board of Ed for them to pay his tuition," said Sheryl Romano, whose son Jonathan, 15, is starting 10th grade at Stevenson this fall.

Romano has worked with a pro-bono lawyer and spent dozens of hours on the phone and in courtrooms and meetings advocating for tuition for her son, who she said has "severe learning disabilities" including speech, reading and processing issues.

After a monthslong battle, the DOE finally paid most of Jonathan's tuition for last school year in June, but the city still fell $4,000 short of what the school was owed, Romano said. That's a loss the school just had to take, because Romano is unable to bridge the gap.

The annual fight keeps Romano from sleeping, especially when she worries that if the funding falls through, Jonathan could be booted from the first school where Romano feels his needs are being met.

"It’s crazy because technically I’m responsible for [the tuition] if the DOE doesn’t pay for him," she said. "I knock on wood. I’ve been very lucky."

She added, "I’m not giving up and I refuse to."

Stevenson features counselors and small classes and is designed to serve students with challenges including anxiety, mood disorders, trauma history, autism and information processing issues. Nearly all of the school's graduates attend college, with students going on to New York University, Bard College and Sarah Lawrence College, among other schools, said Matthew Mandelbaum, the school's director of outreach.

"We work with students where ordinary adolescent adjustment issues have gotten out of hand," Mandelbaum said.

A strong academic program engages kids and distracts them from other issues, reinvigorating "a love of learning that was squelched" somewhere along the line, Mandelbaum said.

The nonprofit school relies on donations in addition to tuition, but Herron said fundraising is challenging because donors often want to support programs that will help a larger number of students.

Herron, who has led the school for decades, said if the tuition payment delays continue, the school might have to put teachers' salaries on hold.

"It is pretty unthinkable, but in the most desperate case teachers might have to wait for salary payments," Herron said. "That would surely result in some teachers quitting for jobs elsewhere in spite of their tremendous devotion to our students and our mission."

In the fight for tuition payment, the school also tried to go to the Fund for the City of New York, which helps businesses and nonprofits that are owed city money, but that didn't work because the city technically owes the money to the families, not the school, Herron said.

"We're fundraising — we're doing everything we can do," he said.