Former TV journo helping schools craft messages

If it takes a village to raise a child, perhaps it also takes a village to handle a special education complaint.

Darien Schools and the Board of Education have been utilizing the services of law firm Shipman & Goodwin as they navigate their way through an unprecedented complaint filed by 25 parents of special needs children who claim the schools are illegally slashing special ed services to save money.

But lawyers are not the only professionals helping the schools. Duby McDowell, a former television journalist turned public relations professional, has also been assisting the schools as a communication consultant. McDowell was not hired by the schools, but works with Shipman & Goodwin.

“Shipman & Goodwin has asked me to assist the firm as it works to communicate the steps the district is taking to address recent concerns,” McDowell stated in an email.

Attorney Andrew Feinstein has been assisting parents with this complaint, and lamented that taxpayer money is going to a public relations firm.

The “superintendent appears to be treating the parents’ petition to the state Department of Education as a public relations issue,” Feinstein said. Superintendent Steve Falcone “is paid $237,000 a year by the people of Darien to communicate clearly the actions taken by the Darien Public Schools. It does not seem to make sense to pay a private public relations firm to do a job that the superintendent is already hired to do.”

But many parents have expressed frustration that the district has not effectively communicated its strategy. When consultant Theresa DeFrancis was hired, Falcone first said she would review policies and procedures and then train staff. He later said she would have “carte blanche” to do whatever she liked, but once her contract was signed, her duties appeared limited to whatever the school board deemed “reasonable.”

Falcone also did not send an email to parents to notify them that the district had finalized its contract with DeFrancis. Only some parents — a few members of the Special Education Advisory Committee — got an email. The contract is now on the district’s website.

Board of Ed Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross has not responded to numerous emails expressing concern about how the schools are communicating their response and how the school board has approached its role as elected representatives in light of the complaint. The Times also asked how it could improve its coverage and has gotten no reply.

Responses from the schools and earlier from the school board have not addressed questions specifically, but have instead spoke in generalities that appeared to focus on predetermined talking points.

McDowell’s online biography states that she knows “how the media operate, and due to her extensive contacts among reporters, editors and editorial boards she can effectively assist clients in their outreach and response.”

It’s unclear how much her services have cost the town. The Darien Times has asked Falcone for billing invoices with Shipman & Goodwin and will report it when it become available.

McDowell’s firm was paid $63,000 by the City of Groton over a nine-month period ending this April to help the city explain to its residents why a publicly-funded $27 million cable television station was failing, according to Paul Yatcko, director of utilities for the city.

Attorney Feinstein said the “solution does not lie with a public relations firm.”

“The solution lies with Darien strictly complying with the law and making students whole who were injured by these illegal policies,” he said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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