District's response to Gamm report: We're appalled
As they expressed their outrage at the extent of the unlawful actions revealed in attorney Sue Gamm's report on her investigation into the special education department, two Board of Education members and the acting superintendent offered their apologies.
"After reading and rereading the entire report, I am appalled at the breadth of illegal activities, misinformation and deceptions that were perpetrated in the Darien Public Schools," Board of Education chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said at the Tuesday, Nov. 12, Board of Education meeting. "It became apparent that the `united front' documented in the report and that the parents faced have been the administration's approach to its dealings with the Board of Education for many years. I would like to extend my sincere apologies to all children and their parents; the board and I believe that our administration shared the board's goals and visions for providing a quality education for all our children."
Board member Heather Shea agreed.
"I am sickened by the depth and breadth of the changes made on purpose of student IEPs, the numerous violations of state and federal law, the lack of operating and policy procedures in the school district to guide the special education processes and the hiding of these facts from the board," she said. "It is inexcusable and wrong. I personally will accept responsibility as a member of this board and I apologize to the students and parents affected by this district's actions. I personally will work very hard to repair this district."
Acting Superintendent Tim Canty, like Hagerty-Ross, also apologized to the district for the damage caused by the unlawful activities within the special education department.
On Nov. 4, Gamm presented her executive summary after two months of investigation and confirmed the state's findings: That illegal activities had taken place within the special education department, including the changing of Individual Education Plans following a Planning and Placement Team meeting, a direct violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. What's more, the investigation found that during former Superintendent Stephen Falcone's first year as the schools' chief in the 2010-11 school year, "the district ran a deficit, and attention was drawn to a large budget increase for special education and small increase for general education."
As a result, Falcone worked with Robin Pavia, the former director of special education and services, to reduce costs within special education, such as coordinating transportation with other districts and better managing the use of paraprofessionals and hiring analysts instead of relying on contracted personnel.
Director of Special Education and Services Deirdre Osypuk maintained that the actions she took were in response to direction given to her from the board and administration, according to a June 24 letter Osypuk sent to the state Department of Education, that said that she was expected to reduce the costs of the special education department.
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However, during an interview with Hagerty-Ross, Gamm was told "emphatically" that the school system was "never under direction to cut services."
Osypuk told Gamm that she was expected to "tighten up procedures; promotes greater consistency across schools; and establish effective management practices." Several finance and education board members "strongly denied" that their primary goal was to reduce costs. Board of Education members "stressed" to Gamm that they never told Falcone that services should be cut.
Hagerty-Ross said that as a result of broken trust from the community and compromised lines of communication, she will forgo her chairperson's report to allow for a public comment until a board policy is changed. The lack of public comment has been a recent talking point leading up to this year's election. The four candidates who looked to fill the three available seats all spoke of the importance of allowing for public comment during the public meetings.
Canty said that in the wake of Gamm's presentation, he has worked with John Verre, who was hired to serve as a special education department ombudsman, to determine what is next for the district.
"I think that we're trying to develop a culture of acceptance across faculty and staff in our findings," Canty said. "We take these reports seriously."
Canty said that in order to face the road ahead in fixing the special education department, there needs to be focus on the input, output and outcome of the department.
"We need to agree that the approach will based on clear communication, on honesty and on transparency," Canty said. "We need to foster and built respect across constituents. Most notably, we need to build relationships with our families."
He then presented some suggested actions that the district take, including taking responsibility of professional staff by developing and adopting guidelines for district practice and will put a process into place that support compliance with the special education law.
Additionally, he suggested that a three-tiered strategy plan be implemented for 90 days out, one year out and five years out so that the district can establish goals to meet.
Canty said that the 90-day time line is critical to implement and meet the changes that Gamm suggested.
"Then we need to plan and discuss how we communicate our work to the board, our families and the community," Canty said.
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