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Education chief: Agency is nation’s ‘most staff-deprived’

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is shown in this video image as she testifies before state lawmakers at a budget hearing in Albany on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017. Credit: NY Assembly

New York State’s top education official declared Tuesday that her agency is the nation’s most understaffed of its kind — a point acknowledged by Long Island school administrators who say they are frustrated by bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, testifying before state lawmakers at a budget hearing in Albany, said that the State Education Department is struggling with a depleted staff and outdated computer systems.

“SED is the most staff-deprived education agency in the country,” said Elia, a former Florida school superintendent who took over the 2,400-employee state agency in 2015.

As an illustration, the commissioner said her department struggled for months to cope with 280 staff vacancies, until Monday when the state’s Division of the Budget agreed to fill 150 of those positions. Two key positions as yet unfilled are in the department’s Office of Facilities Planning, which is responsible for approving school construction and renovation throughout the state, Elia said.

A Budget Division spokesman, Morris Peters, said the Education Department’s budget has increased by $28 million since 2012.

“Given the resources already available to the department, we believe further investments should be applied to the classroom and not to the bureaucracy,” Peters said.

At the local level, school administrators said staff vacancies in the Education Department can lead to months of delay in winning approval of needed repairs. Charles Russo, the East Moriches superintendent, said he worries about the time required to replace a middle school venting system.

“I just spoke to an architect a couple weeks ago, and he told me that getting state permission takes well over 18 months,” Russo said.

Understaffing of the department is a longtime issue.

In 2011, the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group, led a study of state education agencies nationwide. One finding was that the New York State Education Department had the highest ratio of students served, numerically speaking.

Jericho’s superintendent, Hank Grishman, said his district recently was informed by Albany that requested approval still was many weeks away for asbestos removal at two schools — work that can only be done over the summer.

“We need approval by mid-March,” Grishman said. “Otherwise, the work might have to get pushed back to the summer of 2018, and that would increase costs.”

Delayed school repairs are not the only result of limited Education Department staff. Educators in Nassau and Suffolk counties said Tuesday that a more crucial problem was Albany’s inability to deal in a timely way with issues directly affecting academic programs — for example, student testing, teacher job evaluations and upgrades in classroom technology.

One statewide project that has experienced delays is the Smart Schools technology upgrade, which is being financed by a $2 billion bond issue approved by voters in 2014. State education officials said they have approved 204 applications for funding from local districts, and that 188 applications remain under review.

Another nagging issue is Common Core testing. Many parents and teachers remain deeply opposed to state tests in grades three through eight, and leaders of opt-out efforts have threatened continuation of boycotts that resulted in more than 80,000 students on the Island alone refusing to take tests in English Language Arts and math last spring.

Many school administrators here have been negotiating with state officials over potential changes in tests that might placate opponents. Local leaders report slow progress.

“If you put a call in, and you’re looking for someone to help you out with some new idea, you realize very quickly that you’re always talking to the same person,” said William Johnson, the Rockville Centre schools chief. “That means they’re overburdened, and they have more responsibilities assigned to them than they can handle.”

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