District spends over $390,000 fixing special ed mess

A year of tumult sparked by an illegal special education program has cost Darien more than $390,000 to fix, according to invoices and salary information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

This number includes legal and consultant fees through September, as October numbers for most services were not yet available.

The lion’s share of costs have gone to Shipman & Goodwin, who raked in nearly $41,000 in September alone handling the special education crisis. September was the most costly month for the district with legal expenses since 25 parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education in March.

The law firm took in a total of $59,006 for September work, and has billed Darien $188,081.50 since April to help the district navigate the complaint.

Shipman has billed the district $26,587.50 to pay public relations consultant Duby McDowell for her services. The district has been plagued by communication problems throughout the ordeal, which has culminated in the resignation of the schools superintendent and the ordering of a forensic audit into state reimbursement applications.

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. McDowell has declined to comment on what her services have entailed. Her monthly services cost the district $5,317.50. Shipman & Goodwin have utilized McDowell to assist Darien Schools since April, records show, and perhaps earlier.

Investigator Sue Gamm was paid more than Shipman for her work during September, which totaled $44,191.17. She worked 184.5 hours at $225 per hour. There were only three days during that month that Gamm did not investigate Darien’s special education program — Sept. 2, 15 and 18. She worked 12 consecutive days once, and 11 days on another stretch. If her hours were spread over the 21 work days that month, she would average 8.8 hours per day. She did not bill for more than eight hours for any one day.

Darien has paid Gamm $64,112.60 since she took the job in August, which includes hotel, travel and food expenses. October costs for Gamm’s work was not yet available.

Special education Director Deirdre Osypuk has been paid nearly $70,000 since she was placed on paid administrative leave in mid-June. She received a 1.7% raise when she signed a new contract on July 1.

The interim special ed director, John Verre, whose official title is “special education ombudsman,” has been paid $16,153 since taking the job in mid-October. His annual salary is $200,000, and he gets $1,500 a month for living expenses.

Steve Falcone, former superintendent who resigned a week after Verre was hired, has taken home $14,584.62 as part of his severance package. Falcone will continue to be paid until the end of this year, and he is also eligible for an additional $36,462 in unused vacation time, although it’s unclear if Falcone had used these days before his resignation.

Theresa DeFrancis, the former state attorney who was hired to develop and implement special education training materials, billed the district for $5,355 for September and October work. In total, the district will pay DeFrancis $10,855 for her work.

Mary Gelfman, the attorney who was hired to assist parents and the district through an informal dispute resolution process, was paid $1,155 for October work.

All in, the district has spent $391,992.50 fixing its special education program. This figure does not include October legal and public relations fees or payments to Gamm.

Many have pointed to the irony of a district that cut its special education spending in the face of a rising population of children with disabilities, and is now facing unforeseen expenses to clean up the illegal policies of the past.

Money for these expenses has come from the administration account, although the Board of Education has said it will eventually use money from the special education account to pay these costs. This has many parents concerned, as these costs were a result of mismanagement, and using special education money would only further fuel the anger of those in town who have said special education is taking away from general education, they said.

Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Education chairman, could not be immediately reached for comment.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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