NEW YORK — Danielle Ruggiero is a teacher in training at Eden II, a Staten Island school for children with autism.
“I took over this classroom over a year ago now,” said Ruggiero, whose class comprises students between the ages of 15 and 17. “I just fell in love with it ever since then.”
What You Need To Know
Schools like Eden II, which serves students with autism, educate children whose needs can’t be met in public schools
They’re funded by the state, but they get less funding than public schools, leaving them less money to pay staff
That means salaries pale in comparison to public schools, making it nearly impossible to retain staff, who can make tens of thousands of dollars more elsewhere
“I’ve considered it. People ask me all the time, but I haven’t really been in a rush, because I do love it here and I do love my job, and I love the kids and I love the staff,” she said. “But it definitely makes me wonder, and want to keep my options open.”
Ruggiero isn’t alone — and that’s the problem facing Eden II and other schools like it. Eden II contracts with the city to provide a year-round education to children who cannot be served by public schools. The school doesn’t charge tuition, and students can’t enroll with them directly; they only serve children referred there by the city.
Their funding comes from the state, but the tuition rate they get per student is considerably less than what public schools get, meaning there’s less money to spend on staff.
“My teachers, who desperately want to stay here, are being called by the [Department of Education] now and [being told], ‘We’ll give you $30,000 more — and by the way, you don’t have to work for the summer, and if you do want to work for the summer, we’ll give you another $10,000,’” Joanne Gerenser, the executive director of Eden II, said. “So, this is not to knock the DOE or their salaries — they are worth what they’re being paid. But I don’t understand why my teachers aren’t worth the same.”
Because of this, schools like Eden II face a staffing crisis. Many teachers who once focused on these students with autism move on to take new jobs at DOE schools where they’re paid more by the city. To compensate for the teacher shortage, Eden II has at times had to close down in-person classes and shift students to remote learning.
“If we get one COVID case, that impacts class closure. But half the time, we’re closing now because we just don’t have any staff,” Gerenser said. “You know, one person calls in sick, and two people quit the night before. It’s unfair. These families have been through enough, and it’s so disruptive for the kids.”
That’s certainly been true for Luan Ardolic, who missed about a week of school this year due to the shortages, his dad Medin Ardolic said.
“It was like a discrimination… toward my kid. My niece is able to go to her school the next day. Why is mine not able to go to school the next day?” Medin Ardolic asked.
Yet the state continues to provide more funding to public schools than these contract special education ones. This year, public schools saw a 7% increase in the tuition rate the state pays them. Schools like Eden II received just 4%. Over the years, annual disparities like that one have led to the wide gaps in funding — and as a result, staff pay — that exist today.
But legislation passed unanimously by both the Assembly and the Senate would help alleviate the funding crunch these schools are feeling, by tying the annual funding increases given to schools like Eden II to the typically larger ones given to public schools.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has yet to sign the legislation, which her office told NY1 remains under review. Ardolic hopes she’ll sign it.
“My son is no different than anyone else’s kid. These teachers are no different than any other teachers out there,” he said. “Sign the bill, that’s all I could say.”