Conversation about the selection process of the person to oversee the special education department this school year dominated the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee meeting on Aug. 29.
Members of SEPAC, which consists of special education parents from each of the schools and the Council of Darien School Parents, as well as those of out-of-district children, asked the Board of Education about the committee that will choose the person to oversee special education in the 2013-14 school year. The board expects to hire someone by the end of the month.
Deirdre Osypuk, the current director of special education and services, has been on paid administrative leave since June 17.
Throughout the course of the meeting, which lasted for nearly two hours, many answers were provided, but there were instances in which the board and Superintendent Stephen Falcone were unable to provide concrete information.
The meeting was one of several conducted this year in relation to the Darien public schools' special education department since a group of parents filed a complaint with the state in March. The parents claim that the district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by removing the "team aspect" of the Planning and Placement Team meetings, at which students' programs and goals for the year are determined. Under the law, educators are prohibited from making any sort of predetermination about the students' programs before meeting with the parents.
Jane Pelletier, the out-of-district representative on the committee, asked a series of questions regarding the selection of the person who will oversee the department, among them, "How many members will be on the committee? Who has been selected so far? How many seats are needed to be filled? Is there a deadline to form the committee? Who will chair the committee? Who will co-chair? Will the meetings be open? Will a schedule be posted?"
Pelletier continued with her questions, some of which Falcone answered before board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross took over. Hagerty-Ross said the search committee would consist of all nine Board of Education members and two special education parents who will be invited to sit on the committee and will have voting power. The board will not identify the parents to protect their children's privacy, Hagerty-Ross said. She added that the parents are free to publicly identify themselves if they so choose.
Based on the opinion of Paula Pearlman, an attorney with the Freedom of Information Commission, and her interpretation of the situation and knowledge of FOI statutes, the names of all the members of the personnel search committee should remain public. If the committee enters into executive session from a public meeting, the names of the people in the executive session must be noted. However, the search committee may fall under the category of a "non-meeting," which is reserved for meetings that can involve the search for an "executive-level employee" and don't require public notice. It was the opinion of Pearlman, Colleen Murphy, the FOIC executive director, and Mary Schwind, the FOIC managing director, that the position of independent person to oversee the special education department in the 2013-14 school year does constitute an "executive-level employee," though they noted they have not dealt with a similar position in the past. Even if that were the case, Pearlman said, the Board of Education would still need to vote on the search committee and therefore making the parents' names public.
"You can't just have people on a committee and not name them," Pearlman said.
On June 25, the Board of Education unanimously agreed to hire its own private investigator -- Chicago-based attorney Sue Gamm -- to review the complaint and subsequent allegations against the department. That decision came following a private parents' meeting with several state Department of Education representatives that yielded information regarding Individualized Education Plans being changed without parents' permission -- a violation of the IDEA.
Additionally, a special meeting was scheduled to receive parents' feedback about the hiring of the person to oversee special education. Parents were given the opportunity to tell the board about the qualifications they expected in the person to be hired, with the most common requirements being the need to have someone who is independent, knowledgeable in special education law, practices transparency and is communicative with the parents of special education children.
The interview process will start in the next two weeks and will take place over the course of two days, Hagerty-Ross said, and the interviews will be done in private. "We do want to move forward," she said.
The position will not be advertised because it is a "very unique position and skill set," Hagerty-Ross said. The selection committee will reach out to every special education professional in the state "and beyond," Hagerty-Ross said, to find someone who has the right qualifications.
The committee was also told that Theresa DeFrancis, who was hired as an education consultant to review and revise staff development materials, will lead training sessions for the new special education policies for the Board of Education and parents. That training likely would take place at the end of September. All special education staff have been trained on the new policies, which needed to be vetted by the state Department of Education; general education staff will be trained on Columbus Day, Falcone said.
Additionally, a meeting with Gamm will take place at a future date. Press, school and district administrators will not be allowed to attend.
In late July, the Board of Education received the first of two reports from the state. In total, the state made 16 recommendations. The other six recommendations "may not rise to the level of a specific violation of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act)," but were "unclear or incomplete."
The report concluded that the training materials issued by Osypuk during the 2012-13 school year contained "overly restrictive, inaccurate, noncompliant and/or incomplete guidance."
There is no indication as to when the second report from the state will be issued.
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