School employees break silence

The silence has died.

In the wake of a growing and deepening public school crisis, current and former Darien Schools employees are stepping forward to shine some light on an assortment of problems that happened last year and which ended in findings of illegal activity and the resignation of the district’s superintendent.

The spark that ignited this firestorm of opinions? An eight-page letter from Julie Bookbinder to then-Superintendent Steve Falcone in September of 2012. The letter, sent via U.S. Mail, was released to The Darien Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Bookbinder was a long-time Darien speech and language pathologist with 28 years of experience. She was the only person in town with a doctorate degree in her field, yet she resigned shortly after the hiring of Deirdre Osypuk, the special education director, who took the helm on July 1, 2012.

“If I held any hope at all that my professional experience and opinions would be valued and respected, I would have stayed, but it was absolutely clear to me that that would not happen,” Bookbinder stated in the letter, which was the primary cause for Falcone’s abrupt resignation as he did not share the letter with the Board of Education, according to board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross.

Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave in June, and she received a 1.7% raise on July 1. The district has paid her more than $67,000 since she took leave, which happened soon after 100-plus parents showed up to a state meeting to share stories of special education services being restricted, denied or removed from children, sometimes as young as 3.

Public pressure from the Board of Finance on the Board of Education created an environment ripe for the slashing of services to save money, according to findings by attorney Sue Gamm. However, finance board Chairman Liz Mao has vehemently denied her board overstepped its bounds.

Leon Rosenblatt, Osypuk’s lawyer, told The Times that when Osypuk took the helm, she found “a broken system.”

“She did not do anything under pressure to reduce costs,” Rosenblatt said. “She came in and found a broken system. There were a great many errors in the computer system that she had to fix. There were a number of people in the department who weren’t doing any work that benefited children.”

Yet Bookbinder’s email tells a different story. She alleges that Osypuk’s “dictatorial” management style led to “tremendous stress” among staff, some of whom felt they were being “told to do things in a manner that, [from] experience as professionals, they believe [are] unacceptable.”

Bookbinder wrote that staff members confided in her after she resigned about their fear for their job and the drastic changes that were taking place under Osypuk’s leadership.

Staff members told Bookbinder “they are afraid of being accused of insubordination and of losing their jobs if they disagree with anything,” adding that some of Osypuk’s directives were “not using best practices,’ were “unprofessional,” or were “unethical, or illegal.”

“Much of the department is demoralized,” Bookbinder wrote. “The word ‘despondent’ keeps coming up. That is the general tenor of the department based on the countless number of people who have shared their feelings with me over the last week or so.”

The state Department of Education confirmed in two separate reports that Darien broke state and federal special education laws. Training materials created under Osypuk were found to be “inconsistent” with state and federal guidelines, and changes were made to some children’s education plans without parental consent.

By law, a child’s individualized education plan, or IEP, is supposed to be altered only with parental involvement. The state found the district made “substantive” changes to some IEPs, but it failed to indicate how many IEPs were changed in this manner. The state also failed to inform parents if their children’s IEPs were altered illegally, and placed the onus on parents to determine if this happened.

At the June meeting with state investigators, parents shared stories involving aides being taken away from children with severe needs, reading specialists being removed from teaching illiterate children, occupational therapist services being restricted, and administrators ordering tests for autistic children that were intended for children with other disabilities.

The state also found that the district waited months to get evaluations done to determine service eligibility for a child, and when needed services were determined, the district further delayed providing it. Additionally, the state determined that some parents didn’t receive their children’s IEPs until weeks or months after the team meeting, when the law states that schools have five days to deliver the IEP.

Osypuk, however, refuted Bookbinder’s notion that her leadership was met with fear by special ed staff. Speaking through her lawyer, Rosenblatt, Osypuk claims that Falcone did not share Bookbinder’s letter with the Board of Education because he found her concerns “to be without merit.”

Osypuk said that she wanted to “use [Bookbinder’s] skills and expertise to provide services directly to children, as well as acting as a consultant to other providers.”

“She was not pleased,” Osypuk wrote. “She abruptly resigned,” and later wrote her letter to Falcone.

Bookbinder addressed this concern in her letter.

“I was not at all upset at the idea of providing therapy to students again,” she wrote. “I would have happily accepted a treatment assignment, assuming that I felt reasonably valued as a professional. The issues I would not live with are disrespect, dishonesty/lack of forthrightness, unethical/illegal decision-making, and ignorance of communication disorders and students with severe disabilities in general.”

More voices

Laura Conte worked as the assistant director for elementary special education for four years and said when she learned of Bookbinder’s letter, it had to be serious. Bookbinder was known as St. Julie while in Darien, as she reportedly operated with a high degree of integrity, Conte said.

“She went above and beyond,” Conte said of her former colleague. “She was always there for kids… and was very supportive of me as a brand new administrator.”

“She was the consummate professional,” she continued. “She loved her job.”

School board chairman Hagerty-Ross referred to Bookbinder as a “respected staff member” in her public address announcing Falcone’s resignation, and referenced Bookbinder’s letter to Falcone as the reason for his departure.

As the situation continues to deepen, questions continue to surface. While Falcone was still superintendent, he confused many when he claimed that the special education director reported directly to him, refuting claims made by former Director Robin Pavia, who said she reported to Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary special education.

An examination of thousands of printed email pages by The Darien Times obtained through FOI requests showed that Osypuk asked Pandolfo key questions about special education procedures and policies, and only consulted Falcone on legal matters.

Pavia claims that Pandolfo orchestrated most of the changes to the special education program over the last year. More special education complaints were filed against elementary schools than the high school and middle school, according to state data. This further implicates Pandolfo’s role, some have said.

After Gamm’s report was publicized, Pavia came forward and offered what she considered to be even more evidence of Pandolfo’s role. Gamm said the district did not have a procedural manual for special education, but Pavia said the district had created one, but that Pandolfo blocked it from becoming finalized.

“I could see no reason for the manual to be kept in limbo, except for one,” Pavia wrote in an email leaked to The Darien Times by a confidential source. “The manual followed the [Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act] and state [regulations]… faithfully and the detail in it would leave no room for misinterpretation.”

Conte resigned from her position in February of 2012, before Osypuk took over. However, while she was still in Darien, a peculiar thing happened, she said.

“Earlier in the year, I had been asked to report directly to Dr. Pandolfo,” Conte said. “Robin was removed as my lead administrator. When I started to meet with Judith, questions about the law would come up, and I was told we were saving money and we didn’t need to use a lawyer.”

Lawyer Sue Gamm completed a preliminary investigation into special ed on Monday, and reported that legal counsel was almost never used in the special education department last year. She suggested this was part of the reason why the state found so many instances of illegality.

“In a time of changing procedures and practices, the lack of [school board] counsel was perhaps the canary in the coal mine,” Gamm wrote. “I believe that the 2012-13 school year may have proceeded differently if there had been legal guidance…”

Conte recalled Pandolfo saying, “‘Oh no we can handle it. We don’t need a lawyer’,” Conte said. “I said, ‘Um, OK’.”

“I think it was a way to get Pandolfo more involved into special ed,” said Conte, who admitted she never had problems working with Pandolfo. “I would report directly to Robin prior to that. I had some heavy cases that were pretty complex. It left me uncomfortable.”

“In my personal opinion, it set the wheels in motion to change the regime,” Conte said.

Pandolfo has not responded to numerous requests for comment. The district did not appoint Pandolfo as interim superintendent when Falcone resigned, despite her holding seniority over Tim Canty, who was only hired this year.

Internal emails show that Conte’s replacement, Liz Wesolowski, also interacts with Pandolfo about as much as she did with Osypuk. Bookbinder’s letter notes that staff members contacted her and told her that Wesolowski joined Osypuk in insulting Pavia’s management.

Staff members “also perceive a lack of respect for Carleen [Wood] and her work,” Bookbinder said of the assistant director for secondary special education. “It is as if there are only two special education administrators who matter, Deirdre and Liz.”

In an exclusive interview with The Times, Bookbinder discussed how difficult it was to write that letter to Falcone.

“For more than 13 years, it had been a pleasure to work for the Darien Public Schools,” she said. “However, in September 2012, I decided to leave for the reasons outlined in my letter.”

Gamm’s report notes that many of Bookbinder’s concerns “were the basis of the [state’s] findings” and Gamm’s own conclusions.

Conte also spoke with staff members who told her the same things they told Bookbinder.

“They would call and share frustrations, their angst,” Conte said. “A couple people were in tears, very distraught. They felt badly. They were confused and felt they were not meeting needs of kids because their schedules were overwhelming.”

A longtime teacher’s aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear she would lose her job, confirmed that Bookbinder’s claims, and The Times’ reporting of this problem, has been “true,” and that Osypuk “lied about whatever she wanted.”

“She didn’t want the public to know a lot of things,” she said, adding that the parents she’s dealt with have not been overbearing or demanding excessive services, as some have claimed were the reasons for last year’s drastic changes.

“The parents are very decent people,” she said. “They were disappointed that the town twisted the truth. No question that a lot of things have been hidden.”

Bookbinder noted the importance of moving forward.

“At this point, it is most important for all involved, Darien students and their families, [school] staff, and the community as a whole, to move forward and recover from the upheaval of the past year,” she said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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