State of the Town: Town leaders discuss special ed remarks
Some parents of special education students are describing a presentation by Board of Finance Chairman Jon Zagrodzky at Darien’s annual State of the Town Representative Town Meeting as “inaccurate, offensive and divisive.”
“Please remember that you are not just talking about data points on a slide, you are talking about students — children. Children and families who are identifiable,” SEPAC Tricia Bresnahan, Courtney Darby, Jamie Zionic and Kelly Dupont wrote in response to a slide presentation used by Zagrodzky to explain the town’s finances and included specifically the rise in special education costs.
Katrina O’Connor also wrote to Zagrodzky, citing the investigation and subsequent discovery of violations of rights of students with disabilities in Darien in 2014 following a complaint filed by a group of parents. Zagrodzky served on the town’s Board of Finance at the time.
“Taxpayers footed a large bill for an independent investigation and forensic audit of both educational practices and financial reporting,” O’Connor wrote.
“This all started with concerns about the increasing costs of special education. The attorney hired by the Board of Education reflected on the very issue of how expressed concerns can be misinterpreted,” she wrote.
Zagrodzky responded to the SEPAC group, offering to meet them as soon as possible and thanking O’Connor for her comments.
“I appreciate your comments and take them seriously,” he said.
At a recent Operations Planning Committee meeting during which all town board heads meet, Board of Education Chairman Tara Ochman addressed Zagrodzky’s speech and the reaction.
“Some of the comments during the Board of Finance speech concerned some special education parents. I told them to reach out to Jon Zagrodzky and he’d be more than willing to talk to them about it,” Ochman said.
Ochman said she assured the parents that the school board was committed to educating all children and all of their needs. She said she wanted to address the issue publicly because she didn’t want to return to a time, as was the case at some points during the special education investigation in the past, were parents and town officials were divided over the issue.
“I don’t want us repeating mistakes that were made in the past. I wanted to assure parents this board is committed to educating all children and I don’t want to speak for the Board of Finance, but I have seen their commitment,” Ochman said.
“It is fair for Jon Zagrodzky to address major budget drivers. A lot of this is difficult to control at the local level and a lot of school districts are experiencing the same concern,” she said.
“While it is a necessary conversation, we have to be sensitive with how we have it. It brings up emotion,” Ochman said.
“The public needs to be aware it is fair to discuss any large amount in any budget, but we have to be careful about the words we use, the language used — on both sides,”
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson said she felt it was Ochman’s role to manage the emotions of the parents, and that Zagrodzky was trying to add transparency to some numbers, which is his responsibility as finance board chairman.
“The town is 100% committed to educating children. It would be healthy to remember the role Jon played when this situation arose in the past. We know that Jon and the Board of Finance are strongly committed to educating all students,” Stevenson said.
Board of Finance member Frank Huck, at the OPC meeting in Zagrodzky’s absence, said he “can appreciate the sensitivity.”
Huck said the special education community is still “pretty raw” from the previous problems.
Those at the OPC meeting agreed that a lot of the challenges come from the continued unreliability of state funding, especially in higher wealth communities.
Ochman said it was important to her to make it public to parents that the community leaders view kids’ education is the first priority.
Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini provided his view as a special education parent, and said that he saw this as a select group who took issue with Zagrodzky’s presentation.
“I thought it was a refreshing presentation,” he said.
Ochman said the group she received calls from was not “select.”
Earlier this week, The Darien Times was copied on an email from SEPAC leaders to Zagrodzky.
“We would like to thank you, Jim Palen, and Frank Buck (Board of Finance) for meeting with us today. We hope the exchange of ideas and perspectives will benefit families in Darien. We look forward to continuing communication and thoughtful dialogue in the future,” it said.
It was signed by Tricia Bresnahan, Courtney Darby and Jamie Zionic of Darien SEPAC.
Budget season in Darien begins in January.