Newspaper claims schools denied access to info

After no response to at least three requests for public records from the schools, The Darien Times has filed a complaint with state Freedom of Information Commission, alleging the schools have denied access to public documents.

The requests asked for information related to the special education problems in town — problems that were verified when the state Department of Education found illegal activity in 10 documents created and used by the schools during its implementation of special ed services.

One request asked for the number of parent requests made under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act since 2008. Another was to determine the nature, number and cost of Freedom of Information, or FOI, requests made of the schools since July 1, 2012; and a third request involved obtaining evaluations for key school administrators.

A public agency has four business days to acknowledge receipt of an FOI request, yet no response has been made. One request is dated July 12, 2013.

But according to Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Education chairman, media requests for information “are raising [the schools’] budgets quite a bit,” and this could also interfere with the upcoming investigation into the schools’ special ed policies.

After a recent Special Education Advisory Committee meeting, Hagerty-Ross told the packed room of residents that in addition to legal expenses, “there’s costs with FOIs, there’s costs for all these other media outlets and their FOIs that are raising our budgets quite a bit.”

“We have to track all of this, because it is going to cost the district and we have to, at some point in time, figure out if it is going to start to affect our bottom line for services to our students, and if we have to go back to the Board of Finance for additional funds,” she continued.

Hagerty-Ross reiterated her concerns about FOI costs at a recent Board of Finance meeting. She later told The Darien News newspaper that she understands “the value of the information to certain individuals to FOI, [but] at this point in time in Darien, we need to be able to move forward and heal.”

“And for that, we need the resources to move forward and do that,” she told The Darien News. “If they are being pulled in the direction to cull FOIs instead of investigating the investigation, it’s sort of against the process.”

However, the schools spent less money on lawyers working on FOI issues during the months of April and May than it did in a single month for public relations assistance with Duby McDowell, a former TV reporter turned PR professional.

According to school legal bill obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, Darien spent $4,691 in legal fees related to handling FOI requests over a two-month period. This cost covers 17.2 hours of legal work. However, the short narratives that accompany each itemized expense sometimes included other duties performed by lawyers, so the total cost to Darien for FOI help could be even less.

By contrast, the district spent $5,317.50 on McDowell’s public relations assistance in a single month — from April 15 to May 14, records show.

Superintendent Steve Falcone also works on FOIs. Schools’ attorney Tom Mooney declined to comment on how much time he advised Falcone spend on FOIs. When asked if 30 minutes a day was long enough, Mooney said, “that would be more than enough time.”

The complaint was filed on March 20. If Falcone worked on FOIs 30 minutes per workday since the complaint was filed, including spring break, that would mean he’s spent 47.5 hours on FOIs over the last 19 weeks. Given his salary is $237,000 annually — or roughly $114 per hour — then $5,415 of his salary might have been allocated to handling FOIs from March 20 to July 31. During that same time, however, McDowell might have been paid more than $10,600 to help with public relations.

It’s unclear if other district employees are assisting with FOIs. Public agencies are required to have a retention policy for emails to determine if they should be kept. As superintendent, Falcone is responsible for maintaining records, according to Board of Ed policy.

Comparing apples to apples, Falcone’s FOI work during April and May could have cost $2,565, leaving the total FOI expenses to the district for those months at $7,256.

The district spent $63,998.50 in legal and PR fees in April and May, and paid Falcone $41,040 during that time. Combining Falcone’s salary and legal costs, the schools spent 6.9% of those expenses on FOI.

Including all school spending, FOI expenses reflect less than half of a hundredth of a percent of the total school budget during that time, or 0.048%.

Legal and PR expenses for the months of June and July were not yet available. A source close to the situation said that the PR firm is paid a flat monthly fee, which could be $5,317.50.

The schools have not provided any information on FOI requests and costs, which is partially why The Times filed its complaint with the FOI commission.

Hagerty-Ross said the FOIs are draining the schools of resources, despite FOIs being responsible for bringing the special ed issues into the light. It also remains the lone ally for many parents, who have said they have little faith that the Board of Ed’s investigation will be adequate. Additionally, the potency of FOI has been somewhat diluted since the administration has consistently failed to respond to parent requests for information, some parents said.

Yet, the school board chairman continues to blame FOI requests for potentially affecting the schools’ bottom line. The Darien News reported that after the July 11 Special Education Advisory Committee meeting, a “Darien media outlet submitted six FOI requests between 4 and 7:15 p.m. on July 12,” and attributed this information to Hagerty-Ross.

It’s unclear what media outlet this referred to. However, The Darien Times sent four FOI requests to Hagerty-Ross during that time frame, and one to the Board of Finance, and carbon-copied Hagerty-Ross. Hagerty-Ross declined to comment on FOIs with this newspaper.

Superintendent Falcone told The Darien News he’s received 30 FOI requests since the complaint surfaced. Falcone has not responded to requests for similar information made by this newspaper.

The Times told Falcone that it would revoke its complaint with the state if the schools adequately responded to the requests for information. Falcone did not respond to this request as of presstime.

Information parents gleaned from Freedom of Information requests were responsible for bringing the schools’ now-confirmed illegal activities to the table. However, it wasn’t information received from a request that surfaced the issues — it was an omission left out of a request that sparked the parents’ complaint with the state.

This omitted document was the foundation of the parents’ complaint, and was leaked to the parents from someone within the district. The state later affirmed most of the parents’ allegations, which led many to question whether the district knew the document was illegal and intentionally withheld it to prevent legal problems.

Falcone has since apologized for the omission, calling it an “oversight.” But omissions continued to surface as school sources sent parents more documents that the state has now confirmed contain illegal directives.

Attorney Mooney told The Times in June that he did not think these omissions constituted a “cover-up.”

“I’m just not buying the premise that it was an intentional cover-up,” Mooney said at that time.

Falcone has said that he did not know of the leaked document until the parents filed their complaint.

Falcone also recently said that the special education director reports to him, and not to the assistant superintendent, which was the assumption many had been under. He also said that the document he omitted was “widely distributed.”

If that’s the case, Falcone omitted a document that was widely-distributed by a department head who reported directly to him. Yet he maintains that he had never seen the document until the complaint surfaced, and claims the omission was an “oversight.”

Many have called his leadership into question because of this occurrence. But many parents are still concerned that Falcone merely acted under direction of the Board of Finance and the Board of Ed that was tired of seeing rising costs in special ed, and wanted to cut expenses.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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