Special ed expenses and questions continue

Unbudgeted expenses continue to pile up on Darien Schools as the district works to fix a complex web of problems in its special education program.

The consultants Darien hired, Chicago attorney Sue Gamm and consultant Theresa DeFrancis, billed the schools for $23,486.21 for the month of August and two days in July.

Gamm was hired to investigate the special ed practices, which the state Department of Education has confirmed in two reports were illegal in the 2012-13 school year, but will not be looking into individual cases. The state has also not examined individual cases, leaving some to wonder how parents will know if their children were harmed as a result of illegal activity.

Gamm has not responded to a request for comment on why she is not looking into individual cases.

To address individuals, the district retained former state special ed hearing officer Mary Gelfman to help parents who think their children’s cases need review.

In its second report, the state confirmed that Darien staff illegally changed the individualized education plans, or IEPs, of some children with disabilities. The plans were changed without parents’ knowledge, the report stated, but it did not state who changed the plans. The state also has not informed parents if their children’s plans were altered, saying only that plans were changed but failing to say whose plans were illegally edited.

Many have expressed concern that some parents would not know if their children’s plans were illegally altered, as the special education system is complex and filled with cumbersome processes and education jargon.

In its second report, the state said it accepted Darien’s plan to have an informal resolution process, but Darien had yet to develop this plan. After the report was sent out, Darien hired Gelfman, who, along with parent attorney Andrew Feinstein, helped develop the informal resolution process. However, the state’s acceptance of Darien’s new system without being privy to its details has led some to question the state’s authority in this matter.

Gamm charged the school district $4,861.63 for a two-day visit at the end of July. Announcement of her hiring came at the end of the day on July 30, the last day she charged for fees. Of those charges, $1,261.63 were expense-related, including $501.80 for air fare, $280.60 for hotel and $469.30 for taxi service.

Gamm billed Darien for 52 hours for the month of August at $225 per hour, and worked on nine days in August. She was only in Darien for three days in August, from Aug. 7 to 9, according to her invoice provided to The Darien Times by the Board of Education. Her August bill totaled $13,094.58, with $1,394.58 of that bill coming from travel expenses. Total expenses to Gamm are $17,596.21.

Of her work, Gamm has held phone conversations with attorney Feinstein and the schools’ attorney Andreana Bellach, reviewed emails, conducted on-site and phone interviews, and examined the first state report, among other activities.

DeFrancis was retained in late April, a month after 25 parents filed a state complaint alleging the schools broke federal law. She was hired to create new training materials and train the special education staff, although she didn’t begin work until August.

DeFrancis began training of staff in August, and started training for parents on Oct. 8. Another afternoon training session for parents is slated for Thursday, Oct. 10, from 7 to 9 p.m. at 35 Leroy Ave.

The district paid DeFrancis $5,530 for her work in August, for 34.5 hours of work at $140 per hour. She also billed the district for 10 hours of travel time at $70 per hour. Her work spanned 10 days in August, with three of those days including travel to Darien.

She has said she waited for the first state report before she started her work. The first report was delivered on July 18, and it confirmed that Darien’s training material violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, by its use of training materials that were “overly restrictive, inaccurate, noncompliant and/or [included] incomplete guidance.” The report also found the district broke state special education law.

“During the course of the investigation, the district conceded that some of the information contained in these documents/presentations is inconsistent with state and federal law,” the report stated.

The state said it “acknowledges the proactive measures the district has taken to address the issues in the training materials,” which include the hiring of DeFrancis and Superintendent Steve Falcone’s email that advised special ed staff “not to rely on any statements” that contradicted the district’s legal obligation to make decisions about children’s education plans in concert with parents and not without parental consent.

Falcone never specified to his staff what documents should be avoided, or what aspects of certain documents, yet the state said that his email “retracts any previous guidance requiring staff” to determine children’s special education plans without parental approval.

Neither the state nor Gamm has or will examine individual instances of children being denied special education, removed from special ed, or if their education plans were illegally changed.

Gamm’s survey, which stopped receiving input at midnight on Oct. 8, asked for information from parents on three subjects, including their experience with Scientific Research-Based Intervention, or SRBI.

SRBI is offered to children who start to fall behind in class, and has three tiers with increasing levels of intervention. However, critics have said the SRBI program can be used to delay needed special education services to some children.

Gerri Fleming, a former high school history teacher turned special education advocate, earlier told The Darien Times that SRBI is a useful tool, however it is only to be used for kids suspected of having what’s known as specific learning disabilities. These disabilities are defined under federal law, and generally include difficulty reading, writing, doing math, or listening and speaking trouble.

“If autism or ADHD or some other disability is suspected, the school may not use SRBI, but should evaluate immediately,” Fleming said, adding that if SRBI is used for a suspected learning disability, “at any point in the process that the parent has the right to request an initial evaluation for the purposes of determining eligibility.”

Deirdre Osypuk, Darien’s director of special education, was placed on paid administrative leave in June, after more than 100 parents attended a state meeting with investigators. Roughly 25 people spoke at the meeting, claiming the district administration was illegally denying or cutting services to children with special needs.

These cuts were then confirmed in two state reports, and they came on the heels of three straight years of budget overages in special ed spending. School board and Board of Finance members have been vocal on the need to rein in special ed spending, with many also citing their happiness with Osypuk’s work, even after parents had complained to the school district that Osypuk and others were breaking the law, according to emails examined by The Times via a public records request.

Osypuk has been on paid leave for 83 work days, through Oct. 9, which cost taxpayers $54,129.28. The district has also spent nearly $16,000 on public relations assistance with Duby McDowell Communications through July, and more than $108,000 in legal fees through July. August and September fees for PR and legal help were not yet available. September costs for DeFrancis and Gamm were not yet available.

Costs for informal hearing officer Gelfman will be reported as that information surfaces. An interim director is yet to be hired, and it’s unclear how much this person will cost the district.

Factoring in all costs, Darien Schools have spent more than $201,000 on expenses related to cleaning up the special education problem. That’s enough money to hire three full-time teachers for a year, or pay for special education services for eight children for a year, according to per pupil expenses for the 2011-12 school year.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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