Ask and you shall receive.
Except when it comes to getting information about special education program changes in Darien, according to at least 18 parents who filed a complaint against the district with the state Department of Education, urging an unprecedented halt of state and federal money to the public schools because of “the extent of wrongdoing and violations of the rights of students with disabilities…”
An unnamed whistleblower has blown the lid off of what parents are calling an affront to public education, and the information gleaned since has unraveled a tangled web of what appears to be conflicting statements and penny-pinching measures aimed at reducing costs at the expense of the town’s most vulnerable children, sources have said.
The whistleblower sent a number of special education parents a memo they were originally told did not exist by the school administration, according to sources who wished to remain anonymous. The memo, drafted by recently hired special education director, Deirdre Osypuk, outlined numerous changes to special ed programming, which, parents contend, “misstates the law in numerous instances.”
Before getting the memo through the tipster, parents tried to obtain a copy but Steve Falcone, schools superintendent, did not respond to their requests, sources said. They tried obtaining the memo through other channels and again were told the memo did not exist. They filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain all correspondence related to special education program changes and the memo was omitted.
That is until someone sent them the memo, unsolicited. Andrew Feinstein, a lawyer who focuses on special education issues and represents several parents who signed the complaint, said he was “aghast” when he first saw Osypuk’s memo.
“This is totally out of line,” he said.
Several parents told the Darien Times they had been experiencing drastic cuts to their children’s Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, after Osypuk took over managing special ed in town last June. The IEPs are arranged with goals for the child to reach, and can include methods and timelines for achieving such goals.
After experiencing what some have considered “extreme” and “unnecessary” IEP changes, some parents have placed their children in private schools, despite at a cost that could be overwhelming to some.
In response to questions about whether other parents would perceive this complaint as nitpicking, a source told the Darien Times that this is simply a request by a group of parents that the state clarify policies.
“This is not a group of parents complaining, and this is not a lawsuit,” the source said.
Molly Van Wagenen, a parent and complaint petitioner, emphasized the aim is to help all children receiving a public education.
“Our concern is not only for our own children, and is not only for children in special education, but is for all children in Darien Schools,” Van Wagenen stated in a letter to this newspaper’s editor. “Parent involvement, transparency and communication, and checks on the power of individual administrators to be able to change policy without the input of other teachers, administrators, lawyers and parents is essential to maintaining the thriving district that we have entrusted to educate our children.”
Even in the face of the complaint, the district still appears to be fighting dirty, according to some parents. As soon as the complaint was filed, parents told the Times that the schools embarked on a campaign of “intimidation and retaliation.”
“There is evidence there has been retaliation in regards to this,” one parent said. “Parents are concerned… and don’t want their names out there.”
Claims that meetings were rescheduled to make it more difficult for parents to attend have been made, along with other instances involving the district “bullying” parents and using their children’s educational situations as leverage to prevent backlash, one parent said.
Parents tried to resolve the issue by going to the Board of Education, but those attempts fell on deaf ears, parents said.
“To avoid potential embarrassment for the district, parents requested a meeting with the Board of Education on three separate occasions,” Van Wagenen said. “On the last occasion, parents included a list of questions covering the areas on the memo. The Board of Education never responded to parents’ requests. Feeling that we had no further recourse, parents decided, as a group, to file a complaint with the state.”
Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, deferred comment to a later date. Superintendent Falcone declined to comment, saying only that he respects the legal process. Board member Morgan Whittier also declined to comment, but said he has “the highest regard for Dr. Falcone’s integrity.”
The cost of cutting
Darien Schools have been aware of the rising cost of special education programs for some time, having run over budget the past three years. Some parents speculated that Osypuk was hired to reign in costs, at whatever the price.
This year, for the first time in at least five years, the proposed budget in special education for next school year has gone down, despite an increase in the number of children identified for special education services. Additionally, the budget prepared by the schools appears to increase by 1.89%, but that is only because more than $646,000 was moved from a fixed expense account to the special education account. This is money for special transportation services for in-district children. Taking that money out, the budget drops by 1.42%, with personnel expenses falling by more than 4%, which could be unprecedented as personnel costs generally go up each year along with enrollment and union contracts.
Falcone has pointed to the district’s ability to cut costs by providing services in-house that were once outsourced, noting that this has not compromised service delivery. However, at least four special ed employees have resigned since the end of last school year — positions that are not slated to be filled, according to the school budget.
Osypuk also proposed moving two positions — a speech therapist and a school psychologist — into a grant account. Grant money must be reapplied for regularly, and the schools are obligated to pay wage increases as per agreements with unions. It’s unclear whether the grant money will increase commensurately with contract demands.
Some parents have speculated this was done as back-door approach to attrition. An additional school psychologist was added last year after much public outcry for the need, citing the increasing number of “students in crisis.”
The demands requested by the complaint — a cessation of state and federal funding to Darien Schools — have never been invoked in Connecticut, according to state records.
“Nevertheless, the extent of wrongdoing and violation of the rights of students with disabilities by the Darien Public Schools warrants serious consideration by the State Department of Education, pursuant to its supervisory responsibility over local education authorities pursuant to the IDEA,” the complaint reads.
IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, allows for all children, regardless of ability, to receive a free and appropriate public education. The word “appropriate” has led to numerous debate over what a public school should provide. The act was signed into law in 1990 and has been amended at least several times.
“Parents, by law, are supposed to be involved in the creation of the education plans for their children,” Van Wagenen said. “So, Darien violated the parents’ rights in two ways: by falsely denying the existence of the memo and by abridging parental rights in violation of the IDEA.”
The complaint cites 11 instances in Osypuk’s memo that allegedly go against the basic premise of IDEA.
“Perhaps, most egregious is… the team nature of PPT meetings,” the complaint states, referring to the Planning and Placement Team, mandated by IDEA, which is supposed to be a collaborative effort between the schools and the parents to develop a child’s special education plan, or IEP. “This memo provides that school staff must go into a meeting with a united front, with all differences worked out in advance. This is predetermination, something clearly forbidden under the IDEA.”
This complaint does not stand alone. Ten other similar grievances have been filed against the Board of Education over the last few months, and five due process hearings have also been pursued. Attorney Feinstein said no lawyers have accompanied Osypuk during these due process hearings, which struck him as “strange.”
“Virtually all of these complaints revolve around similar issues,” the complaint continues, “either the Darien Board of Education unilaterally withdrew services [previously] provided for in the child’s IEP or the Darien school system excluded the parents from involvement in the IEP process.
“Certainly these complaints can and will be handled in the ordinary process. Yet, at a certain point, the volume of similar complaints should alert the state Department of Education to systematic wrongdoing and should, under the statute, trigger the state to conduct a hearing concerning such systematic violations of parental rights under the IDEA.”
Tom Mooney, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin representing the schools against the complaint, could not be reached for comment. Attorney Feinstein said Mooney “wrote the book on special education.”
“It’s a reflection of the seriousness,” Feinstein said of the schools’ choice of counsel. “If they’re using Tom, they’re taking it seriously. Tom is top flight. He’s the pro you would bring in.”