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Schools admit wrongdoing: Internal email advises avoidance of recent policies

After weeks of defending its policies, Darien Schools appear to have conceded that new special education measures might not be consistent with state and federal law.

In an internal email sent out by Superintendent Steve Falcone on Friday, April 26 and sent to The Darien Times through a confidential source, Falcone reminded special education staff about the importance of operating within the law.

“As we work to revise some of our training information,” Falcone wrote, “staff involved in special education in the District should not rely on written statements to the contrary in materials presented in trainings provided after July 1, 2012.”

Falcone did not initially respond to requests to learn if he sent the email. However, on Monday, April 29, at 5:39 p.m., Falcone sent an email to The Times saying he had just sent an email to Darien parents that referenced the internal email sent Friday.

“As we work to revise some of our training information, I have asked that staff involved in special education in the District should not rely on any statements to the contrary, written or verbal, provided after July 1, 2012,” Falcone stated in the email to parents.

In this email, Falcone’s words are even stronger, adding “verbal” statements to his list of things to avoid should they contradict federal or state law.

It’s unclear how many teachers received the Friday email, which references changes proposed in a memorandum by new special education Director Deirdre Osypuk, who took the helm on July 1, 2012. This memo was one of at least three policy-change documents that were omitted from a Freedom of Information request filed by several parents of special needs children to the schools earlier this year. The omissions became apparent after a district employee or employees sent additional documents anonymously to parents.

The memo, parents allege, advises special education staff to make it more difficult for children to receive the services they are entitled to under federal and state law. Soon after receiving a copy of this memo through an unnamed source within the district, 25 parents filed an unprecedented complaint with the state Department of Education, asking it to take over special education service delivery and to stop giving money to Darien Schools.

After initially claiming the memo was taken out of context, Falcone’s recent email suggests that Osypuk’s recommendations should not be applied.

On the same day the Friday email dispersed, Falcone sent out a press release announcing the hire of Theresa DeFrancis, a retired consultant with the Bureau of Special Education, to “independently review and revise staff development materials as necessary,” Falcone wrote. This information, however, was sent out before a contract was finalized between DeFrancis and the district.

In an interview with The Times, DeFrancis appears to support some of the complaint’s allegations.

“I think the school district certainly recognizes there’s information in the memos that’ s not consistent with the federal law,” DeFrancis said. “That clearly needs to be addressed.”

The hiring of DeFrancis is proof that something is wrong, some parents have said. DeFrancis also addressed her opinion on why the district and Board of Ed were defensive when the complaint first emerged.

“I think it’s not unusual for a school — or anybody for that matter — when they’re faced with an allegation that they’ve violated a law, deny it and say, ‘No, we don’t think so’,” DeFrancis said. But when the allegations are examined in their entirety, she said, “that causes people to pause and say, ‘Hey, we really need to take a look at this’.”

Up until now, the district and the Board of Ed have defended the policies under Osypuk’s direction, claiming the schools were merely becoming more efficient in service delivery. The special ed budget is scheduled to be reduced by 0.5%, but that is masked by the transfer of more than $646,000 into the special education budget from another budget category.

Last year, expenses went up more than 14%.  Parents have said Osypuk was hired to rein in costs, at whatever the expense. Board of Finance members in the past said publicly they would not support giving more money to the schools should they go over budget in special ed, which has happened each year over the past three years.

In Osypuk’s employment application to the schools, she states: “To highlight the significance of a 0% budget, as I am sure you know, such a budget does not merely maintain the status quo. Instead, due to yearly raises built into bargaining contracts, a 0% budget means monies are pulled from other areas to cover these fixed expenses, often times resulting in programs for students being cut.”

The terms of DeFrancis’ contract have not yet been finalized, but DeFrancis expects she will work until at least next fall, when she would begin training special education staff.

It’s unclear how much this would cost. One parent, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear the schools would retaliate against her child should she use her name, said the hiring of DeFrancis appears like the district now has two special ed directors.

Read the full story in this week’s Darien Times print edition, on newsstands Thursday, May 2.

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