Schools given blank check for legal fight against parents

It’s been said that money can’t buy happiness, but according to finance board emails obtained by The Darien Times, money can buy a good legal fight.

And Liz Mao, Board of Finance chairman, has told the Board of Education as much when she responded to an email by fellow finance board member Jamie McLaughlin, just a week after 25 parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education.

“I told Betsy [Hagerty-Ross] she can have all the lawyer money she wants,” Mao stated in the email.

McLaughlin responded by saying he hopes Hagerty-Ross, Superintendent Steve Falcone, and special education director Deirdre Osypuk “know we have their back.”

Another email showed Hagerty-Ross ensuring that her board was “all on the same page with the” Board of Finance. This was in response to an email by McLaughlin, in which he detailed the results of his meeting with Falcone and Osypuk.

McLaughlin’s visit drew scrutiny from many parents when it became known that he had discussed special ed policies. McLaughlin said his visit was merely to learn more about special education and nothing more.

Publicly, Board of Ed members expressed anger at the finance board’s involvement in education affairs. Board of Ed Vice Chairman Clara Sartori said a private audience with Falcone and Osypuk is not even offered to school board members, with the exception of its chairman, Hagerty-Ross.

“Several of us thought it was completely inappropriate,” Sartori told the Special Education Advisory Committee at its July meeting. “I will say, there was a lot of outrage amongst Board of Education members.”

Hagerty-Ross echoed her vice-chairman.

“The Board of Education was not happy that this Board of Finance person had an audience with the director of special ed,” Hagerty-Ross said.

Examining emails appears to tell a different tale, some parents said. Hagerty-Ross said her “same page” comment was taken out of context, and that she was being sarcastic.

While Mao has said that the schools are not given carte blanche with its regular budget — which includes providing services for special needs students — she later clarified by adding that her board has never cut from any operating budget recommended from the schools. Her emailed comment, however, appears to give the schools carte blanche for legal assistance.

In an interview with The Times, Mao said her comment was more directed at the parents who had sued the schools to recoup costs for private placement of their children, which sometimes involved cases where the district had a winning case but chose to settle to avoid high legal fees.

“If you’re in the right, you should be able to defend yourself,” Mao told The Times.

On the other side of the coin, the schools spent $180,000 in one year fighting a mother who had little money to defend herself.

Mao said that case, if true, appeared abnormal.

“I don’t think it’s right when people are trying to take advantage of the system and get services they’re not entitled to,” Mao said. “In no way do I mean that people who are entitled to services shouldn’t get the services.”

She also said when she supported the schools by offering them an unlimited legal budget when the complaint first surfaced, she did it under the assumption that the schools were in the right.

“What we’ve had here is an unusual circumstance,” Mao said, referring to the state’s findings that Darien Schools broke state and federal law.

She also said that any idea that the Board of Finance is driving school decisions “is ridiculous and unfair.”

“Quite honestly, it really annoys me,” she said.

Andrew Feinstein, a lawyer who has represented the parents during this complaint, said Mao’s statements bely the reality.

“For a person who seems committed to saving money, she certainly seems to be committed to spending money fighting this complaint,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable.”

He also said Mao mischaracterized outplacements.

“The reason people outplace their kids is because Darien has cut costs and provides a lousy education for kids with disabilities,” he said. “If Darien invested in providing an appropriate education for kids with disabilities then the number of outplacements would drop and the cost to to the district will drop.”

“It’s penny-wise, pound foolish,” he added.

Originally published in The Darien Times.


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