Legal and PR fees break six figures as district fights complaint

Darien Schools spent more than $124,000 on legal fees and public relations help from April through July as it navigates its way through an unprecedented special education problem.

That’s enough money to provide special education services for five students, according to per pupil expenses for the 2011-12 school year. August legal expenses have not yet been provided to The Darien Times.

Of that money, nearly $16,000 has gone to Duby McDowell Communications for public relations assistance. McDowell is a former television journalist who has been helping the schools since 25 parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education.

The district’s counsel, Shipman & Goodwin, has billed the schools a flat monthly rate of $5,317.50 for McDowell’s services, with the latest bill having consolidated two months. Shipman attorney Tom Mooney has declined to comment on its payment arrangement with McDowell. McDowell has not immediately responded to requests for comment.

Legal expenses for July were the highest out of all four months since the complaint surfaced, approaching $36,000. April expenses were the next highest, at just below $34,000. This does not include other special education legal expenses, nor does it include general legal expenses. Shipman billed Darien more than $51,000 for total July services, including payments to McDowell, according to legal bills provided to The Times by the district administration.

The Times also asked McDowell about the kind of help she has provided to the district. She has not immediately responded to that question. In May, she said the law firm asked her “to assist the firm as it works to communicate the steps the district is taking to address recent concerns.”

As communication problems continue to pile up, some have expressed concern that McDowell’s services are unnecessary. The cost of three months of her services is roughly equal to one year of regular education services for a child in Darien.

The special education complaint has highlighted many communication problems, some have said, as the district has allegedly committed numerous Freedom of Information violations, and only informed certain parents about a meeting with state investigators when they were told to invite all parents of children with special needs.

Darien Schools also gave parents less than one week to apply to be part of the interim special ed director search. The names of the selected parents are to be kept private, as Betsy Hagerty-Ross, school board chairman, implied that confidentiality was more important than transparency for this process. The board chairman also said a week was “ample” time for parents to throw in their hat. The process and criteria used to determine which parents will serve has also not been made public.

The district has also only given a week’s notice for parents to attend a meeting with Sue Gamm, the investigator who is examining all aspects of special education. This meeting is set for Wednesday, Sept. 11 at 10 a.m. An email was sent to an unknown number of parents on Sept. 3. The district website was not updated with this information until Sept. 9.

Further problems arose when the district announced that it would find an “independent hearing officer” who would make non-binding recommendations to parents and the schools should the two disagree over special ed services. A month later, when asked for details about that position by members of the Special Education Advisory Committee, Hagerty-Ross emphasized that it’s something new that hasn’t been done before and that the exact job duties were still unclear.

Additionally, the schools stopped using controversial withdrawal forms after this newspaper, and perhaps others, made inquiries over the forms’ appropriateness. Steve Falcone, superintendent, said the forms were given to all students, yet one form includes the phrase “records to private elementary schools,” indicating the form could only be sent to elementary schools. Elementary parents also said that not all of them filled out this form when they sought private placement for their child with special needs.

The district also did not inform parents via email that it had finalized its contract with consultant Theresa DeFrancis, who is being paid $140 per hour, and $70 per hour of travel time, to help the district improve its special ed policies and procedures — duties that are normally the responsibility of the special education director. The director, Deirdre Osypuk, remains on paid leave as the district seeks to hire someone to do her job for the next year.

The district also didn’t inform parents of Osypuk’s leave, which attorney Mooney said would have been “unusual” if they had.

The Darien Times has filed two complaints with the state Freedom of Information Commission, alleging the school district has illegally withheld publicly available information from this newspaper.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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