Gamm's report confirms unlawful Darien special education activities
Published 11:26 am, Thursday, November 7, 2013
Three of the five key areas of findings in attorney Sue Gamm's special education investigation -- which was presented at a special Board of Education meeting Monday at Darien High School -- start with the word "unlawful."
Gamm told those in attendance -- which included several school staff and administrators -- that her only knowledge of Darien prior to being hired was through Google alerts that she received regarding special education.
"Darien, as all other cities and towns across America, has been impacted by the economic recession and the growing costs of special education," Gamm wrote in the executive summary of her report.
Throughout the course of her investigation, Gamm spoke with more than 200 people in focus groups, small groups, parents meetings and individual interviews.
During the investigation, Gamm notes that financial concerns came about during the 2008-09 budget year and that "concerns intensified over the next three years."
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Then, during former superintendent Stephen Falcone's first year as the school's 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, former Superintendent Stephen Falcone worked with the then-current director of special education Robin Pavia 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.
In March 2012, a Board of Finance member reinforced the warning that the 2012-13 and future special education budgets "are increasing at an unsustainable rate."
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.
"The Board of Education made it very clear to me that `things were out of control' and they wanted change and they wanted it immediately," Osypuk wrote, according to Gamm's report. "The BOE asked if I had read the Badway independent study, which provided insight into some of the issues of the special education department. The superintendent made it very clear to me that I was hired to put processes and procedures into place, which I did."
Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave on June 12.
The Badway study was conducted by Thomas Badway, a former CSDE bureau of special education employee, in 2010 to review Darien's management of special education services. His report outlines ways to strengthen the district administration and operations within special education.
However, according to Gamm, none of the board members or superintendent "acknowledged using such language to inform Dr. Osypuk of their expectations regarding her administration and operation of special education." During an interview with Board of Education Chairman Betsy 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.
"They acknowledged an awareness of voices in the community that were upset about the high costs of special education but that concern did not drive board action," Gamm wrote. "It should be noted that unless one is very clear with the message, concerns of high special education costs and expectations or mitigation of increases in special education could reasonably be interpreted as a mandate to reduce services to reach that end."
Gamm told the audience that she had reflected on her investigation prior to the presentation of her executive summary and said that if action was taken when concerns came forward in September 2012, she might not have had to come into Darien.
"One of the most perplexing circumstances of my review was the failure of either of Dr. Osypuk's supervisors (Dr. Falcone and Dr. Pandolfo who shared supervision responsibilities of the director) to ask about and/or ensure that BOE counsel was actively involved in the review of the multitude of directives and changes that were occurring at the beginning of the school year and continuing through February," Gamm wrote. "The failure of the superintendent to ensure the involvement of BOE counsel was especially questionable when the newly resigned and respected (Speech Language Pathology) coordinator in a letter dated Sept. 7, 2012, wrote about her concerns to the superintendent."
Julie Bookbinder's September letter was made public at the Oct. 22 Board of Education meeting when the board accepted Falcone's resignation. During Hagerty-Ross' statement, she referenced a letter that Falcone failed to share with the board.
Gamm said many of the procedures and practices that Bookbinder, who resigned early in the 2012-13 school year, referenced continued through the year and were the basis for some of the state Department of Education findings following its investigation.
Gamm told the audience that she asked Falcone why he did not forward the letter to the Board of Education and he was not able to offer any "reasonable explanation."
Gamm also provided an in-depth timeline of major events involving the special education investigation, starting at June 14, 2012, when then-Special Education Director Robin Pavia emailed Falcone about a request from Judith Pandolfo, the assistant superintendent of elementary schools, to hire more special education teachers and reduce the number of aides for the 2012-13 school year.
Pavia expressed concern to Falcone that Pandolfo was planning on implementing the change without Pavia's input.
No less than two weeks after Osypuk started in Darien, she emailed former Finance Director Dick Huot about an outside occupational therapy agency and hoped to "start scaling" this and other contracts down.
The same day, Osypuk emailed her superiors about the need for more professional development time to stop the "floodgates" of agreeing to Individual Education Plan services she perceived to be beyond the scope of the district's responsibility, according to Gamm.
On Aug. 13, according to Gamm, Osypuk emails to the "team that a teacher certified in a research-based multi-sensory reading program would have `consultation' removed from her case load and no longer support this type of reading instruction because she is not a certified `reading specialist.' "
As a result, the teacher was reassigned to another school and could no longer provide IEP services to children she was intended to, a decision that was not told to the student's parents and was changed outside of a Planning and Placement Team meeting without a description of the reason.
Gamm's executive summary included five overall areas of findings: Unlawful systematic procedures and practices; unlawful meaningful parent participation; unlawful predetermination; IEP changes outside of PPT meetings and amendments; and improper data reporting.
The areas of findings all have interactive impact, Gamm said.
"If there are unlawful systematic procedure/practices in relevant areas, that circumstance creates a condition for unlawful predetermination of PPT decisions and limits meaningful parent participation in PPT meetings," Gamm wrote. "Unlawful predeterminations limit also meaningful parent participation, and the absence of meaningful parent participation leads to unlawful predeterminations. Unlawful systematic procedure/practices lead to improper data reporting, and to changes outside of the PPT and/or IEP amendment process."
Additionally, Gamm noted that all of the documents she scrutinized for her investigation, except for one, did not receive legal review before being put into effect.
Throughout Gamm's presentation, she referenced her time in the Chicago school district, which is the third-largest school district in the country with 404,000 students, and said if a complaint had been signed by 25 parents, as it was in Darien in March, it would have been cause for concern.
"Twenty-five is not a small number even for a small district," Gamm said.
Hagerty-Ross, following Gamm's report, said the amount of information that the board had just received was overwhelming.
"This investigation is of utmost importance to me, and to all members of the Board of Education," Hagerty-Ross said. "I speak for the Board of Education in expressing my disappointment to learn of the numerous mistakes made and inappropriate actions taken in the provision of special education services to Darien students starting last year."
"The hard-learned lessons from the 2012-13 school year, however, may enable the Town of Darien to pull together and set forth on a course of excellence for all its students," Gamm wrote.
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