Former school board chairman lauds Falcone’s crisis management

Educators and a former elected official rallied behind former Superintendent Steve Falcone’s efforts to get a job somewhere else, as the district Falcone led for three years was in the middle of an unprecedented special education crisis.

Among those who wrote a letter of recommendation for Falcone was Kim Westcott, the former Board of Education chairman who left in 2011. Westcott now works for Darien Schools as an administrative assistant and volunteer coordinator.

“Steve has had excellent leadership experience amidst crisis,” Westcott stated in her letter, which was dated Nov. 9, 2013. “He is calm under pressure, thoughtful, and has an excellent sense of priority.”

Stamford Schools recently hired Falcone as its director of human resources, and he is now responsible for hiring key Stamford staff. Westcott’s letter was written after the state found the district broke numerous special education laws. It was also after lawyer Sue Gamm’s scathing 80-page report that showed systemic flaws in Darien’s entire education system.

Westcott and others also noted Falcone’s honesty and his high level of integrity. The date of Falcone’s Stamford application is Oct. 23 — the day after he resigned from Darien. However, he wrote that he was still currently employed by Darien Schools, and that he was leaving to seek a “new opportunity.”

Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, said Falcone resigned because he failed to inform the school board about a damaging letter that he received from the former head of Darien’s speech and language program that claimed the special education department was in “turmoil,” or, as other employees described it, it was “hell.” There was no mention of a “new opportunity.”

Falcone’s leadership in Darien was plagued by an assortment of issues over the past year, including possible violations to public information laws and the withholding from the Board of Education the real reasons for a legal compliance audit. He also suggested the school board hire a special education director who created many of the policies that were later deemed illegal, and he appeared to support the promotions of others in the district who have since been named as contributing to the district-wide campaign to cut services to children with disabilities.

The special education crisis has cost Darien more than $400,000 since April. Five people have been hired since, including interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson to fill in for Falcone, who is still being paid severance as he collects a $160,000 Stamford salary. More than 100 Darien children with disabilities experienced changes to their education plans without parental consent, according to findings by investigator Sue Gamm. Standardized test scores showed that children with disabilities performed worse than they had in years past.

In his employment application to Stamford, Falcone describes accomplishments in Darien. “By encouraging and expecting a contribution to the organization from all employees, parents, and volunteers, it is my belief that we have realized increased student performance, both academically and socially,” he stated in an Oct. 16 letter inquiring about the position.

“I have realized success in my endeavors because I have grounded relationships in trust and have committed myself to hard work, perseverance, and collaboration,” he continued.

Falcone mentioned nothing about the Darien special education program, nor did he mention that the special ed director reported to him. Westcott and others maintained Falcone is a strong hiring manager, and mentioned his willingness to listen to parents.

“He is particularly adept at personnel decisions,” Westcott wrote. “He was able to redeploy teaching and administrative staff to better serve the students and the district.”

Falcone supported the hiring of Luke Forshaw, the Ox Ridge principal who did not follow legal procedures when dealing with children with disabilities, sources allege, which led to one child’s bullying becoming worse and another being hospitalized for 10 days due to an anxiety attack.

The former superintendent also supported the hiring of Liz Wesolowski for the position of assistant director for elementary special education. Wesolowski, who received an English degree in 2004, worked  for two years, in a position created for her, to help oversee the district’s scientific research-based intervention, or SRBI.

This program is used to give students who fall behind in class extra help. It was created to decrease the amount of children identified as learning disabled, although state authorities say it exists as part of a whole-school learning environment. Most children who receive services under the “learning disabled” category are dyslexic, according to the state, and are often children who think creatively and have strong problem solving skills but have trouble reading.

Investigator Gamm found that both staff and parents were not clear about SRBI procedures, and that the district had no SRBI manual. Darien did not follow state guidelines for best practices in implementing SRBI, and had no data to show if SRBI was working. Gamm found that SRBI might have been used to delay providing services to children with disabilities. This delay can lead to behavior problems for some children, who act out as they fall behind, experts say. This can then affect the education of all children in the classroom, as the behavior problems can be disruptive.

Antoinette Fornshell also was highly involved in SRBI as the district’s literacy coordinator. She left a week before Falcone resigned to take a higher-paying job with Greenwich Schools. Despite the SRBI flaws, Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education, said Falcone is keen using data when he makes decisions.

“He always carefully researches issues and bases his conclusions on sound data,” Pandolfo wrote in her recommendation letter. She also cheered Falcone’s ability to hire personnel.

“Recognizing that quality staff members are the foundation of an effective district, Steve participated in and guided the process for identifying new staff members at all levels and in all roles,” Pandolfo wrote. “His guidance on reviewing applications with a critical eye, asking insightful questions to find the best match for positions, and critical discussions with references led to sound improvements in our hiring process.”

One of those hires was Deirdre Osypuk, the special education director who has been paid more than $80,000 since being placed on administrative leave in June. Her leave happened after more than 100 parents showed up to a meeting with state investigators to share stories of services being refused to, restricted or removed from children with disabilities, sometimes as young as 3. Many of the documents Osypuk created were deemed illegal in a two-part state investigation.

Hagerty-Ross has repeatedly pointed out the school board’s minimal involvement in the hiring process, despite the board meeting six times during the last year to interview candidates for administrative positions. The board also interviewed Osypuk, who noted in her application the need to reduce services to students to maintain a zero percent budget increase.

In Bloomfield, where Osypuk held a similar position, test scores among children with disabilities feel two out of three years under her leadership. In Darien, Osypuk cut the special education budget but made it appear to be increasing when she moved certain transportation costs from another account into the special ed account. This cut came as Darien was experiencing a rise in the number of students identified with disabilities.

While supporting Falcone’s job hunt, Pandolfo has also been named by Gamm and many parents as part of the problem with the district’s special education program. Pandolfo directed staff to only give “very general information” to parents on SRBI, which contradicts state guidelines.

“The provision of such general information to parents is counter to advice provided by” the state Department of Education, Gamm wrote in an 80-page report.

Also supporting Falcone was Matt Byrnes, the former assistant superintendent in Darien who now heads Wooster School in New York. Byrnes wrote that Falcone “is willing to make difficult decisions, and carry them out, if they are in the best interest of his students.”

In describing his leadership style in his application, Falcone said “leading is not easy.”

“[T]he good leader hears from all constituents and works in a spirit of communication and collaboration,” he wrote. “The leader must be willing to hear from everyone: to recognize that parents want to be heard… This leader must then act and make the difficult decisions to serve the best interest of students.”

Falcone omitted key documents from Freedom of Information Act requests filed by parents, and he later apologized, calling one of the omissions an “oversight.” These omissions were later found by state investigators to include illegal directives, and were key evidence in the state’s two reports.

“He is known as a thoughtful, collaborative and insightful leader who takes the time to understand the culture of a community,” Westcott wrote. “Steve has a strong moral compass that I could always rely on and I trust him implicitly.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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