Dr. Stephen Falcone, superintendent of Darien Schools, sent parents the following letter in response to allegations made in a complaint filed by more than 20 parents to the state Department of Education, claiming the district has violated numerous state and federal laws in regards to special education.
The letter is reprinted below, verbatim, as sent to parents:
From the Superintendent
Dear Parents and Community Members,
I wanted to provide you with some background and perspective in light of the complaint, that has become public, which was filed with the Commissioner of Education, and sets forth the request of the complainants for a hearing to be convened “to withdraw funds from the Darien Board of Education for its systematic violations of parental rights under the IDEA.”
First, it is important for me to be clear that we do not agree that there have been systematic violations of parental rights under IDEA. In fact, children and families do have due process rights and can request responses or hearings as part of an appeal process. However, I do believe that it is important for me to share some background and perspective regarding our work in special education. We have outlined the Mission, Goals and Objectives of the department, which is shared below for your review.
To promote proactive and fluid communication between general and special education programs, staff, and administrators so all students have access to learner-centered instruction, a continuum of services, and access to the general curriculum.
Implement effective and efficient programming in order to promote high levels of student achievement and independence within the requirements of the IDEA.
1. Ensure an accurate understanding of special education law among all administrators, staff, and parents.
2. Develop IEPs that foster student independence and achievement and are compliant with the IDEA.
3. Establish and implement consistent processes and procedures across the district.
4. Assign staff efficiently and effectively.
5. Build capacity within district.
6. Develop measures of student achievement, program effectiveness, and program efficiency.
7. Share mission, goal, and objectives with all stakeholders.
Let me highlight and expand on a few of the key concepts described above.
First, let us look at Objectives 2 and 3, which assert that IEPs, and by extension student programs, should foster independence and achievement while maintaining compliance with IDEA and that process and procedures be consistent across the district. It is the goal for all of our students, whether they have special needs or not, that they grow in their ability to be independent and that they have academic and personal growth as well. To the degree that all of our children must be able to “fly on their own” following their Darien school experience, we must be conscious of providing students with opportunities to be independent in their work and social lives. We, too, recognize that we must adhere to the decisions of PPTs regarding student programming and services.
In terms of processes and procedures, our efforts have been focused on a few areas. As a procedure, we are obligated to use the “eligibility criteria” (the state guidelines/criteria) for determining if a child is eligible for special education services. We are working to assure that school personnel employ these criteria consistently across the district and with fidelity. Embedded in the criteria are a series of questions which the PPT must answer. These are sometimes challenging questions for which there may be differences of opinion. But in order to answer these questions beyond simply using one’s gut instinct, it is necessary to refer to data to support one’s assertion. This has required a renewed effort on all of the members of the PPT to prepare and use data in answering the eligibility criteria checklist. The goal is that we, as a PPT team, can be confident that data informs decision-making and that the eligibility criteria are applied with fidelity so we can be as accurate as possible when making the important determination of whether or not a child has a disability that requires special education services.
Objectives 4 and 5 examine our assignment of staff in the district. We have a tremendously qualified and supremely caring group of teachers and personnel who support all children in the district, including those with special needs. It is our goal to hire the best possible candidates for positions and cultivate their professional development each and every year. In recent years, we have made a concerted effort to increase training for our teachers, aides, and others to expand their capacity to serve our students. We believe that our students should be taught as close to the general education classroom as possible, as close to their home school as possible, and by our own district teachers to the greatest extent possible. There are certainly times when students with highly specialized needs require supports that we cannot, at the time, provide. Therefore, we must seek other supports, often in the form of consultants, to provide guidance or services to students. We do have, in our own district, some teachers who sometimes serve in more of a consultant/advisory role. Often that role is designed to support a teacher who is supporting a student. To the degree that we can develop that teacher and provide that teacher with the supports necessary for him or her to be independent, that is the direction that we will go. We want all of our teachers to be working as directly as is possible with our students.
There are myriad permutations that we must review each year when scheduling students and teachers for instruction and specialized services. Our efforts have been geared toward developing systems that put teachers and students together for the maximum time possible. This past year, we hired five (5) additional special education teachers, which was offset, in part, by a commensurate reduction in the need for paraprofessional staff. This move has the effect of bringing more teachers and students together and allowing students to develop greater levels of independence.
Another change that we have seen as part of our effort to increase the capacity of our own teachers has been that there is less of a reliance on outside consultants to provide itinerant services. We have on our staff behavior analysts who can provide services to students that were often out-sourced. We have speech and language teachers who can provide feeding and swallowing instruction, psychologists who can provide counseling, and special education teachers who can provide reading instruction. Again, this is not to say that outside consultant services are not needed, but that the need might be reduced as we continue to tap into the expertise of our own teachers.
One of the concerns lodged against the district has been that our charge has been to reduce the costs of special education, with the implication that this will be done with disregard for the child and for the law. It is disheartening to hear – and I have heard this – that we have little or no regard for the child or for the law. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are obligated to provide all children with a “free and appropriate education”. We believe that we have provided this appropriate education in the past, and we believe that we continue to provide “FAPE” to all children. This is not to say that there are not disagreements that the district and families have as to whether “FAPE” is being provided in some individual cases. These are disagreements that we have had in the past that I am sure will continue. I certainly understand that parents want the best for their children and have beliefs about what that means for programming. One of the tremendous advantages of living in a community like Darien is that parents are passionate about education and passionate about their children’s development. In too many other communities, apathy reigns. Thus, disagreement can happen. There are due process procedures that do exist and are sometimes employed by families or the district. It should be noted that whether it is the family or the district that challenges whether there is a free and appropriate education being provided to the student, the “burden of proof” is, by law, always the responsibility of the school district.
One of my responsibilities as Superintendent is to review data and pose questions that need to be asked. One of the sources of data that I have reviewed has been Special Education as a Percentage of Total Current Expenditures. (Bureau of Grants and Management, State of Connecticut) I have looked at Darien compared to the DRG (Easton, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport, Wilton, Region 9) and found the following:
Special Education as a Percentage of Total Current Expenditures
Year Darien DRG A Average
2012 28.42% 21.28%
2011 28.83% 21.63%
2010 27.22% 21.15%
2009 23.96% 19.92%
2008 21.88% 19.80%
Regardless of the year, I believe that we provided a free and appropriate education to the children of the school district. But I would be remiss if I did not try to understand the difference between percentage costs for special education across districts. At times, there are assumptions that need to be challenged. This year, as a review of our practices, we noted that we contracted with a company for special education services for the entire year based on a flat rate. We found that if we went with an hourly rate for services, there was $70,000 that could be saved. We have found that if we schedule for student programming well before the start of the school year, we can more efficiently schedule teachers, reducing the need for outside consultants to “fill the gaps.” We have found that effective professional development can empower our own teachers to provide services that were being outsourced. In these situations, no student services were cut or reduced, but a more efficient service delivery model has resulted in modest savings.
Concerns have also been raised about levels of transparency regarding district operations, particularly in the area of special education. First, it is important to note that confidentiality of individual student information is supremely important from both an ethical and legal perspective, so our sharing specific issues or situations is not permitted. However, we have made a tremendous effort in the past, and especially this year, to communicate our goals, objectives, and practices to a range of constituents. As examples, our district special education administration has presented at each of the seven schools in the district about policies, procedures and practices, all with opportunities for questions and answers. Presentations of this sort have been made to parents who have students in some of our more specialized programs. Multiple presentations have occurred at Board of Education meetings and at CDSP meetings. There is also a Special Education Parents’ Advisory Group whose role is, in part, to serve as conduits of information from the community to the administration as well as vice-versa. In response to questions that emerged at many meetings, we developed a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) document and a Therapeutic Learning Center (TLC) Fact Sheet that is located on our district main page. Each of our meetings has been open to all members of the public. I was willing and continue to be willing to attend meetings of parent groups in the community, like SPEDucated. Earlier in the year, I was personally informed that a meeting of this group was to take place, and I followed up to confirm that I was invited. I was informed that the meeting was closed and I was not invited to attend. However, my door, as well as those of my fellow district administrators, remains open for conversations on this or any topic.
This year, as in the past, we have responded to Freedom of Information and FERPA requests, of which there has been a marked increase in the past few years. We have a protocol that we follow and do our best to provide the information requested. In the recent request, at least one item was not included, a memorandum setting forth guidance in brief summary form on various special education issues. Not including this document in our response was an inadvertent oversight for which we apologize. However, it should be noted that the document in question was widely distributed to teachers and administrators, and there was no intent or effort to keep it internal or confidential.
Each of the items in that memo has a context which we look forward to responding to and discussing. There is a complaint process at the State, both for special education concerns and concerns related to everything from transportation services to student discipline. We receive complaints each year, and it is our obligation to respond to the complaints per protocol and if necessary, take corrective action as might be outlined in a response. As this current complaint is now in process, it would not be appropriate to respond in this forum to the concerns. We look forward to addressing the allegations of this complaint through the State Department of Education process.
Given the public interest in the pending complaint, as well as comments made by others about that complaint, I thought it was important to communicate with you on this matter. I am proud of the excellent job done by the staff of the Darien Public Schools to meet the special education needs of our students, and I want to assure you of our commitment to those students and to meeting our legal responsibilities. Although I have tried to be thorough and detailed in this correspondence, there are more topics and additional nuance that I have not addressed. However, I look forward to having an open conversation on this and other issues.
Stephen V. Falcone