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Parents concerned over new special ed committee meeting structure

When the Special Education Advisory Committee met prior to March of this year, they were always joined at the table by a school administrator. But since 24 parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, administrators have been increasingly absent from sitting at the table with the committee.

This issue has been raised at past committee meetings, as members continue to call for a collaborative relationship with the administration and Board of Education, who in turn have said the meetings belong to the committee, and that the district and school board are merely there in an advisory capacity.

Courtney Darby, co-chairman of the committee, noted how they were not informed of this new structure ahead of the committee’s Aug. 28 meeting.

“Historically, we’ve always sat at the table with administrators from the district,” Darby said at the meeting. “And we even met this week [with Board of Ed Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross], and we were not informed that there was going to be change in the way we were structuring the meeting, so I think you have us all feeling a little off balance.

“We recognize it’s our meeting, but our mission is to work collaboratively with you guys,” Darby continued.

Hagerty-Ross said the administration and school board were not there “to answer questions.”

“We’re here to clarify points,” she said. “I think the key here is if you work amongst yourselves as a group, put together questions…”

Darby interjected.

“We actually did do that already, last week,” Darby said.

“Send them to me,” Hagerty-Ross replied.

“We actually sat there with you, in your office,” said Katrina O’Connor, co-chairman of the committee.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Hagerty-Ross said. “You need to have an open meeting with all your participants here, and discuss what you discussed in the meeting you had last week. What we had in the pre-meeting, is different ideas that might come up, you might need ideas more. You’re the information-takers back to the schools. So, at this point, the meetings should be amongst yourselves…”

Hagerty-Ross and Superintendent Steve Falcone were sent the meeting’s agenda in advance, which was almost entirely composed of discussions about the investigations and other problems related to this “crisis.”

Hagerty-Ross also expressed her preference to have the committee run like the Council of Darien School Parents, or CDSP. Jane Pelletier, advisory committee member, said that while she appreciated the work of the CDSP, structuring the special ed committee’s meetings similarly doesn’t take into account the “crisis mode” the district is in.

“We feel we’re a little bit now in a crisis mode,” Pelletier said at the meeting. “We don’t necessarily feel the protocol for CDSP works for us.”

Darby asked if changes to the structure of future meetings would be made, she would appreciate having that information before the meeting. Pelletier had compiled a list of questions about the search for the interim special education director. While appearing confused, as many members also appeared, about the nature of this new meeting structure, Pelletier asked how she should pose her questions.

“I’m a little unclear about the protocol about the way this meeting is running,” Pelletier said. “Am I able to direct questions here as you are existing in the audience, or am I just supposed to pose what my questions are and they get written down and somebody answers them for us?”

No one from the school board or administration answered. O’Connor chimed in.

“At the last meeting [Superintendent Steve Falcone was] sitting at the table, and we were able to address question to” him, she said. “Now you’re in the audience.”

It’s unclear why Falcone did not sit with the group, as per its custom. Hagerty-Ross said a Darien Times inquiry into why that happened “only continues to impede our progress.”

The committee continued to urge Falcone to join them, however he remained in the audience, and would stand up and walk toward the table for each of the many questions posed.

“I don’t think that recognizes the crisis situation that we’re facing,” Pelletier said of the meeting structure. “What I’ll do is pose what our questions are, if you feel so inclined to answer them, I think that it would benefit the general public… I’ll leave that to your judgment and discretion.”

She then read a list of numerous questions regarding the search and selection of the interim special education director. Falcone clarified that the search process has nothing to do with the administration.

“It’s a Board of Education process, which is unique,” he said.

Pelletier said that “it is the uniqueness of that situation that leads me to believe that the format of this meeting is not conducive to our objectives.”

In years past, Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education, has presided over these meetings, and the special ed administration also attended and joined the board at the table. Now, however, the staff, school board and administration remain in the crowd.

Pandolfo is no longer attending the meetings, and her absence has coincided with the announcement by Falcone that he was the person to whom the special education director reported. The director, Deirdre Osypuk, remains on paid administrative leave, after signing a new contract and getting a 1.7% raise. Her leave came after more than 100 parents showed up to a meeting with state investigators, where “gut-wrenching” stories were shared by parents about how services were denied or taken away from their children, sometimes as young as 3 years old.

Falcone’s claim that Osypuk reported to him has baffled many, especially when former Director Robin Pavia told The Darien Times that she reported to Pandolfo. Pavia left in 2012, and Falcone said he’s been the direct supervisor for the special education director since 2010 — a statement that directly contradicts Pavia.

An examination of emails by The Darien Times showed there was more interaction between Pandolfo and Osypuk than Falcone and Osypuk, which appears to discredit Falcone’s assertion.

Frustration about the advisory committee meeting’s format reached a boiling point when Kit Savage, a committee member and an early whistle-blower who’s been raising special education concerns since last year, called the meeting a “farce.”

“This is kind of a farce, let’s face it,” Savage said. “We’re in the back, up here, we’re expecting answers. We’re all here because we want to collaborate… Let’s get some answers for whatever you do know… What [are] any of the answers to Jane’s exhaustive list?”

Hagerty-Ross began by clarifying the job title of the interim director.

“It’s not an interim director,” she said. “We already have a director, that is suspended… It is called an independent person to oversee special education in Darien Public Schools for the 2013-2014 school year. It’s a mouthful.”

When asked to repeat the title, Hagerty-Ross responded, “It’s in the back. It’s on the website.”

She then repeated the title. In a press release sent on Aug. 3, Hagerty-Ross refers to this person as an interim director.

When she began to explain what the duties and expectations were for this “independent person,” she said that the job qualifications would be determined by the “nine members of the Board of Education, with input from Sue Gamm, Terri Defrancis and our attorneys.”

She did not mention the need for input from the two parents of special needs children — who are supposed to be on the search and hire committee — in determining the criteria for this “independent person.”

The school board chairman then noted there will be 11 members on the committee, including the parents. She did not clarify her previous statement, however, and did not say these parents would assist in establishing the criteria.

Hagerty-Ross also did not explain what the criteria would be used for choosing these parents, and only said the Board of Education would make that decision. Some have expressed concern that Hagerty-Ross would simply pick people who have not appeared confrontational to the district, and would instead pick parents who are more in-line with the school board’s vision.

This has many concerned about the integrity of the entire process.

Additionally, the identity of these parents, who have yet to be chosen, would not be made public, and all members are being asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Hagerty-Ross said confidentiality is of the utmost importance because “everyone has that on the forefront of our minds.”

Savage disagreed, and noted the importance of transparency, especially in light of the numerous allegations of cover-ups, open information violations and ongoing defensiveness from the school board and the administration toward parents and their concerns — concerns that appear to have been vindicated when the state found the district broke federal special education law at least 10 times with its training materials.

Several current and former town officials said the school board’s request for confidentiality is “unprecedented.” While a candidate for the “independent person” position has a right to privacy, those picking the person have a right to reveal their identities if they like, they said.

Parents of children with disabilities have a right to waive their child’s right to privacy, so any parent who was on the committee could ostensibly go public with their identities. The request by Hagerty-Ross to have these parents keep their names private, and sign a confidentiality agreement, goes too far, some have said. She also did not inform parents that they have a right to waive their child’s right to privacy.

Darien now finds itself with a full-time special education director who is on paid leave, making nearly $150,000 a year; a consultant — Defrancis — who is to be paid $140 per hour plus $70 per hour of travel time; an investigator, Gamm, who is to be paid $225 per hour, plus expenses; and the soon-to-be hired “independent person,” who would be paid an amount that has yet to be disclosed or determined.

The schools have spent more than $60,000 for complaint-related legal work, as of July 1, as well as more than $5,000 in public relations help. Since The Times reported the public relations expenses, itemized billings for Duby McDowell, the PR firm used by school attorneys, Shipman & Goodwin, have not appeared on the bills from the law firm to the schools.

Some have expressed the need for more to be understood about the financial problems that led to the cuts — cuts that now appear to be leading to even more spending.

While much has also been said of the cost of Freedom of Information requests made by media and parents — and its potential effect on the schools’ ability to pay its bills — the district eliminated its legal affairs assistant position last year in an effort to save money. This person likely would have handled records requests.

The Board of Ed also dissolved its public information committee last year.

ddesroches@darientimes.com

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