This is part of an ongoing collaborative series between Chalkbeat and THE CITY investigating learning differences, special education and other education challenges in city schools.

Thousands of unresolved special education complaints have been piled onto a small group of hearing officers charged with addressing them, adding delays to an already overwhelmed system. 

Fewer officers have been willing to take cases as the number of complaints has skyrocketed. As a result, over half of the nearly 10,000 unresolved special education complaint cases fell to just a dozen hearing officers as of Oct. 22, according to state records obtained by Chalkbeat and THE CITY. 

At one extreme: Hearing officer Edgar De Leon was assigned so many new complaints that he wound up with 1,713 open cases on his docket.

“Somebody has to do the work,” said De Leon, a former NYPD sergeant turned defense attorney who became a hearing officer in 2004 and gets caseload assistance from his staff. “It wasn’t like I said, ‘Give me more cases.’ People just started going out of rotation and cases kept coming to us.” 

City education department officials confirmed that for long stretches, De Leon was the only one on a rotating list of 69 state-authorized hearing officers who was accepting new cases.

🔗‘It Broke My Back’

The statistics underscore the extent to which the city’s special education complaint system has reached a breaking point. As the number of complaints have doubled over the last five years, reaching nearly 10,000 cases for the first time last year, the number of hearing officers willing to adjudicate them has fallen. There are currently five hearing officers taking on new cases, city officials said.

It means that families who think their children aren’t receiving mandated services such as physical therapy or counseling, believe their child is in the wrong academic setting, or are seeking private school tuition, often face delays getting their cases heard.

By law, the process is supposed to take no longer than 75 days, though it stretched to 225 days on average last school year, according to a state report released in February

John Farago, a hearing officer who had 574 unresolved cases in October, said he works 14-hour days poring over documents and running hearings. The workload has become so demanding that his wife now helps him full-time with administrative tasks, such as managing calendars and billing. By themselves, Farago and De Leon were responsible for nearly a quarter of all open cases as of late October, records show.

“I took every case I was assigned until it broke my back,” Farago said, adding that he has started to decline cases. “If I hadn’t done it, I’d be sitting here with 2,000 cases.” 

🔗Same Pay Rates for Nearly Two Decades

In addition to the volume of new complaints, hearing officers echoed the findings of the February state report, saying they have stopped taking cases because the rates they’re paid for the work are relatively low, and the city has previously failed to pay them on time.

The state education department is responsible for overseeing the program, including hiring hearing officers and setting the maximum pay rate. But the city is responsible for administering the hearing office and typically pays officers for set tasks, such as writing an opinion. Officers sometimes end up earning less than half the $100-per-hour maximum set by the state for certain tasks, a disincentive for taking on complex cases. The pay rate hasn’t increased in 18 years, officials have said.

“If you don’t get paid for four months doing demanding work that’s underpaid, then you go out and look for other ways that you can find clients and do work and put food on the table,” Farago said, noting many hearing officers work part-time and have outside legal practices or other jobs.

De Leon said the city owes him a significant five-figure sum for work he’s already completed, and last month stopped taking on new cases in part because “I didn’t want it to get to six figures.”