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Boston special education cuts found to be wrongful

In a ruling that could cost the Boston public schools about $2 million, a state arbitrator has determined that the School Committee wrongfully laid off about four dozen clerical workers, potentially contributing to a backlog of late reviews of special education plans for thousands of students.

The clerks play a pivotal role in those reviews — entering data into the computer system, scheduling meetings, and performing other tasks that free time up for special education coordinators to talk each year with teachers and parents about any changes to a student’s educational plan, said union officials.

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But in 2010, the School Committee adopted budget reductions that called for cutting the number of special education clerks in half, resulting in the loss of about 45 positions and causing the coordinators to pick up the slack by working hours of unpaid overtime every week.

The reduction violated provisions of the Boston Teachers Union contract, which for more than 25 years has guaranteed full-time clerks to special education coordinators, who belong to the teachers union and oversee up to 160 students annually, according to the arbitrator’s decision issued Monday evening.

To compensate the approximately 90 coordinators for their additional time, the arbitrator, Michael W. Stutz, said the coordinators are entitled to split half of the combined salaries over the last two years of the clerks who were laid off. The School Department said the payout could be roughly $2 million, although final calculations have not been done. The decision was based on a similar arbitration ruling in the 1980s.

“These dedicated public servants who perform a difficult and stressful job deserve some remedy for the increased work, extra hours, and stress that resulted from the employer’s violation of the clerical assistance provisions in the contract,” Stutz wrote in his decision, noting the coordinators worked the extra time out of a “sense of duty and professionalism” and not because they were told to.

The arbitrator did not order Boston public schools to reinstate the cut positions, saying such a move went beyond his authority.

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Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, said he was pleased with the arbitrator’s ruling and said the layoff of clerks was “systemic of what I consider to be a dysfunctional special education department.”

Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman, said officials have not yet decided whether they will appeal but said the assignment of a full-time clerk to each special education coordinator has become an outdated model because much of the paperwork has moved to faster Web-based systems.

The School Department and the teachers union have been locked in contentious negotiations for a new contract, which would replace one that expired nearly two years ago.

Earlier this year, teams of teachers, coordinators, and other specialists missed deadlines in meeting with parents of nearly 3,000 special education students — a critical step in the annual review of individual educational plans for these students.

At the time, Superintendent Carol R. Johnson defended the reduction in clerical staff, saying that technology made fewer hands necessary. But she acknowledged that the School Department may have been too aggressive in cutting clerical jobs and she planned to restore about 20 positions for this fall. It was unclear Thursday whether any positions had been reinstated.

Wilder said the backlog could have been prevented two years ago if the teachers union allowed special education teachers, rather than the coordinators, to conduct the annual reviews. Stutman said the School Department implemented the plan it wanted and he doubted that the teachers had time for additional duties.

During the arbitration, several special education coordinators testified about the additional hours they were working every day and on weekends to try to keep up and about the anxiety it caused, the arbitrator noted.

Asked how the additional duties had affected her job, Kathleen Madone, a special education coordinator from 1988 to 2011, said during testimony: “Short of having a nervous breakdown, you mean? It was very difficult to do my job, which was a full-time job, and then take on a huge piece of some[one] else’s job. It required me to put in enormous amounts of extra time, over and above my contractual hours.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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