PATERSON, NJ - The parents of seven preschool students with disabilities have filed a formal complaint with the state charging that city public schools and the state education department are violating the law by not providing their children with mandated special education programs.

The complaint, filed with the New Jersey Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, says that since September about 250 preschool children in Paterson are not receiving therapy and other special education services to which they are entitled, while another 60 preschool children have not gotten requisite special education evaluations. As a result, the complaint says, the district is in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
"I'm fighting for my daughter,'' said one of the parents, Corey Teague. "She deserves an education just like anyone else.''
 
"No one is returning our calls,'' said Lasanda Sheppy, another parent in the case.
 

Officials in the Paterson School District have acknowledged they are failing to meet state requirements in special education and other mandated areas. They blame the problem on a state-imposed spending freeze enacted in early September that has prevented them from refilling jobs that were eliminated during last spring's massive budget cuts, which produced several hundred layoffs. School officials say they have gotten the state's okay to hire about 27 teachers in the coming weeks, including some for special education, but they have said that would not cover all the jobs that need to be filled.
 
Several parents who filed the legal complaint attended the November 10 meeting of the Board of Education to confront school officials. But board members said they agreed with the parents.
 
"The law says that your children are supposed to have it,'' school board member Jonathan Hodges said of the special education services. "But the governor has cut our budget and now freezes our budget. Your children are being sacrificed on the alter of ideology, not finance.''
 
"Everything right now is in the state's hands,'' said the school board's vice president, Wendy Guzman. "They control us and they are not here on a day-today basis to know our children are suffering.'''
 
The state imposed the spending freeze to allow it to conduct a review of the district's finances - an inquiry that city school officials say was triggered after the district determined it had a $20 million surplus and wanted to use the money to rehire teachers. The state, however, maintains that the district has a multi-million-dollar deficit, according a story on northjersey.com.
 
Back on October 20, Paterson Schools Superintendent Donnie W. Evans said he expected the freeze to be lifted by the end of that month. But that has not happened. At the November 10 meeting, Evans promised to meet one-on-one with the parents whose children have not been getting services.
 
The preschool parents, with the help of the Education Law Center in Newark, filed their complaint with the state on November 5.