In a dramatic turn of events spawned from the special education crisis, the school district’s superintendent has stepped down after three years of leadership.
Steve Falcone resigned from his position as superintendent after 16 years with the district, having first started as a history teacher. In an email to staff on Tuesday, Oct. 22, Falcone said it “is with sadness and regret that I must inform you that I have submitted my resignation to the Board of Education effective today.”
“It is my belief that the district will be well served with a change in order to move forward in addressing the challenging issues it faces,” Falcone stated.
His resignation came a day after the Board of Ed held a four-hour long executive session to discuss his performance, which has come under scrutiny after the state found the district broke state and federal special education laws.
At the school board’s meeting the following night, Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, addressed the resignation, which is the first personnel change to occur since the state reports.
“For many months now the district has been in turmoil over concerns regarding special education procedure, practices and services,” Hagerty-Ross said. “The board and the administration has made significant efforts to address those concerns… however, concerns have continued. And at this time, the board has concluded that new leadership is required.”
Hagerty-Ross noted that Falcone received a letter from a “respected staff member outlining numerous concerns over special education practices and procedure” in September of 2012 but did not share it with the school board.
“While we understand that Dr. Falcone wished to address on his own the serious concerns expressed, we disagree with that approach,” Hagerty-Ross said. “We agree that consulting the board was necessary.”
In his email to staff announcing his departure, Falcone said he took great pride in working “collaboratively on behalf of the students of Darien.”
“In my 16 years in the district as a teacher and administrator, it has been my intention to create an environment of respect while keeping a keen focus on teaching and learning,” he wrote. “Our students have benefited from your teaching expertise and most importantly, the care and compassion exhibited by all of our faculty and staff on a daily basis. I am most proud to have worked with you.”
Falcone’s resignation should only be the beginning of personnel changes within the district, according to Andrew Feinstein, the attorney who has represented parents throughout this ordeal.
“If they think that this ends matters, puts everything to bed prior to the election, they are sadly mistaken,” Feinstein told The Darien Times. “As far as I know, Steve was not the mastermind of this plot, and that at best and at worst, he was an inattentive manager, and allowed others to do things that he should have, as an effective manager, stopped.”
“I don’t see him as a really bad guy here,” Feinstein continued. “There are some bad guys here left in the district.”
In the interim, newly hired Assistant Superintendent Tim Canty will serve as superintendent until the school board appoints an interim person. The district passed over Judith Pandolfo for the interim spot, despite her being with the district as an assistant superintendent for the last nine years. Pandolfo’s name has come up several times by parents who say she led last year’s illegal campaign to reduce services to children with disabilities.
The schools have also begun a “nationwide” search for a permanent superintendent. Canty presided over the meeting in Falcone’s absence. The meeting was also the last public meeting for outgoing board members Clara Sartori, Jim Plutte and Susan Perticone, all of whom decided to not seek re-election this year.
In a statement, Katrina O’Connor and Courtney Darby, co-chairmen of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, expressed appreciation to Falcone for his time with the school district.
“We appreciate Dr. Falcone’s long service to the Darien Public Schools and the work he has done with the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee,” they said. “We will continue to focus our work on moving forward as a community.”
Problems surfaced after the district hired Deirdre Osypuk to run its special education program last school year. Soon after her hire, a number of respected special education professionals left the district, including the schools’ top speech and language pathologist, Julie Bookbinder, and Nicole Querzé, an autism inclusion specialist.
Parents also began to notice changes in how their team meetings were being run. These meetings, called Planning & Placement Team meetings, or PPTs, are held with educators, administrators and parents to develop a child’s individualized education plan, or IEP. Some parents noticed changes to their children’s IEPs that were not authorized, and were told by administrators the changes were due to “clerical errors” when parents addressed these discrepancies. Substantive changes to IEPs is a violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.
To address growing concern, parents Kit Savage and Molly Van Wagenen started SPEDucated Parents last fall to help other parents navigate the complex web of special education processes. The group sent Freedom of Information requests to Falcone, which went unfulfilled, according to emails examined by The Darien Times. Falcone later apologized for the omission, saying it was an “oversight.” Parents then went to the Board of Ed, but claim their concerns were also not addressed by their elected officials.
In March, 25 parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, claiming the district was violating the IDEA. Four months later, the state confirmed the allegations. Two months after that, the state confirmed in a second report that IEPs were changed without parental consent or knowledge.
In June, before both state reports were issued, Osypuk was placed on paid leave after more than 100 parents showed up to a meeting with state investigators, sharing “gut-wrenching” stories of services being restricted or denied to children sometimes as young as 3 or with severe needs. Osypuk got a 1.7% raise while on leave. She remains on paid leave, and the district has paid her more than $60,000 during that time.
Before the first state report, the district hired former state attorney Theresa DeFrancis to revise its training materials. The state then addressed DeFrancis’s hiring as an adequate mitigation measure to fix the training materials that offered illegal guidance. Then, about a month before the second report, the district retained Chicago attorney Sue Gamm to perform her own investigation. In the state’s second report, officials addressed Gamm’s hiring as a sufficient mitigation effort to help shed light on the most egregious accusations confirmed by the state.
The state investigation found evidence of illegal activity, but did not say who was responsible, nor did it say which children were affected. State officials have not responded to numerous requests for comment. Gamm’s report is expected to fill in many of these holes.
Many have suggested that if the state did perform a thorough investigation, on par with what’s expected to come from Gamm, it would open a Pandora’s Box around the state, with parents from other districts looking for similar findings. Darien’s problems, however, are shared by many districts throughout the country, according to interviews with educators, attorneys and special education advocates from several states.
Gamm’s report is due by Halloween. Some have expressed concern that she should provide her report to the newly elected Board of Ed, to prevent any unnecessary redacting of information by current members. Gamm told The Times that she was hired by the current board and will present to the current board, but that she would be willing to present her findings to the new board also, if she were asked.
The district has also hired retired special education hearing officer Mary Gelfman as part of an unprecedented step by a public school to help parents who have concerns about their children’s special education program. Gelfman will serve as an informal mediator between parents and the district. Attorney Feinstein helped arrange the format for the informal meeting, and applauded the district for taking this step forward.
In addition to hiring DeFrancis, Gamm and Gelfman, the district also brought in John Verre, former head of Boston Public Schools’ special education department. Verre began work on Oct. 15, and will serve as the interim special ed director, a position being called the “special education ombudsman.”
Attorney Feinstein said that the schools have taken a “big step in the right direction.”
“Darien has hired some first rate people to deal with this issue, it is very impressive who’s been brought in,” Feinstein said. “These are pros. These are folks who know how to run special education programs that are appropriate, legal and cost effective.”
However, Feinstein and some parents have said that many staff members appear to be want to “go back to the old way.”
“The good news, I suppose, is that [Falcone’s resignation] communicates, in maybe the only effective way, to the rest of the staff, the seriousness of the violations,” Feinstein said, adding that some staff members, until now, have considered the situation has been “blown out of proportion.”
In the state’s second report, officials wrote that 80% of the staff interviewed felt Osypuk did nothing wrong and felt supported her efforts. The other 20% said Osypuk micromanaged them and that they felt disrespected by her. Some said they were directed by Osypuk to exit children from special education.
Eileen Cassidy, education director at Villa Maria, a private school in Stamford that educates children with learning disabilities (which usually means they have dyslexia), earlier told The Darien Times about a meeting she had last school year regarding a Darien child who attends Villa Maria.
The girl was being evaluated for services, and Darien essentially exited her from special education.
“The kid had enormous needs,” Cassidy said. “They said, ‘We didn’t exit her, we said she’s not eligible for special education.’ I said, ‘What’s the difference’?”
Many children who can’t receive specialized services in public school are placed in a private school at public expense, as per the IDEA. However, since Villa Maria educates mostly children with reading problems, such as dyslexia, many parents have said that the district is not offering simple services to children who don’t have complex needs and expensive requirements, which leads to placement in other schools. These placements, parents said, could easily be avoided if the district had a more robust, and legal, special education program.
Others have said that many special ed parents bully the schools by placing their children in private school and sending the district the bill. Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao offered the Board of Ed “all the lawyer money” they needed to fight the parents during the state complaint because of this opinion.
“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 earlier said. “In no way do I mean that people who are entitled to services shouldn’t get the services.”
Feinstein said that Mao has mischaracterized students placed in private school by parents.
“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 the district will drop.”
Still others think that because Darien’s residents are mostly wealthy, the school district has not felt any legal pressure to obey the law since parents can simply pay for private schools themselves if they are unhappy with Darien’s services.
For Feinstein and others, more personnel changes are needed immediately. While Falcone said that Osypuk reported to him, information gleaned from district emails showed that Osypuk reported to Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. Robin Pavia, the former special ed director, told The Times the she reported to Pandolfo. One parent said that when he asked who Osypuk’s supervisor was, months before the complaint surfaced, he was told it was Pandolfo.
“It is very clear to me, that there is an administrator for elementary who has been a major force in these improper policies,” Feinstein said. “I don’t have the evidence to prove that to a judge — she wisely avoids using emails… I have no doubt that this is one of the places that we need to be pursuing.”
Once Gamm’s report is complete in the coming weeks, Feinstein said the district will have a clear picture of where to go with further personnel changes.
“It’s absolutely clear that Darien has plenty of money to fulfill its obligation under the law,” he said. “I think that if [DeFrancis, Gamm, Gelfman and Verre] are listened to… that these practices and procedures could become a model for the rest of the state.”
At the school board meeting on Tuesday, Hagerty-Ross addressed the importance of moving forward.
“We realize that this has been a difficult time for Darien’s Public Schools and the community of Darien,” she said. “The board members are fully committed to working with the school community to rebuild trust and chart a new course for our students.”