Top special ed admin resigns, touts knowledge of laws

The second most powerful special education administrator has resigned at the peak of Darien’s special education crisis to take a similar, lesser-paying position with Shelton Public Schools.

The resignation of Liz Wesolowski, director of elementary special education, still must be approved by the Darien Board of Education, but in light of the special education controversy, her expected departure has raised some eyebrows, especially upon examining statements made in her employment application and to fellow staff.

Darien was found to have violated state and federal special education law in at least 32 instances by creating a district-wide program designed to reduce, restrict and refuse services to children with disabilities and stifle parent involvement. The district is also undergoing a forensic audit to determine if school employees were defrauding the federal government by applying for expense reimbursements for special education services they didn’t provide.

Wesolowski signed an agreement with Shelton on Dec. 31, and will work as the assistant director of special education there. She will be paid $129,210 — about $6,000 less than what she makes in Darien. She got a $10,000 raise this year after she obtained a doctorate degree in education. When she took over as elementary special education director in 2012, her salary nearly doubled from $68,000 to $124,886.

Shelton approved her hire on Dec. 18. The next day, Wesolowski sent an email to her Darien colleagues, announcing her resignation.

“This was an unexpected opportunity that I felt was important for me to pursue,” Wesolowski stated in the email, which was obtained by The Darien Times through a confidential source. “I would have preferred to share this news with you in person, but that was not feasible.”

Wesolowksi inquired about the job on July 31, 2013, just two weeks after the state Department of Education issued its first report from a two-part investigation. The state found Darien broke special education law 10 times by creating documents and training staff using methods designed to minimize parent involvement and restrict services to children with disabilities. Later findings showed even worse illegal activity.

Both of Wesolowski’s letters of recommendation were written in 2011 and were targeted at an assistant principal job in Westport. Shelton Schools provided these letters to The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Wesolowksi applied for the Shelton position on Oct. 21 — the same day the Board of Ed met in a four hour executive session to discuss Superintendent Steve Falcone’s performance. The next day, Falcone resigned. A month later, he was hired at $160,000 to head Stamford Public Schools’ human resources department.

Her application also preempted the results of an independent investigation by Chicago lawyer Sue Gamm, which was delivered on Nov. 4. This report further uncovered an assortment of illegal activity, and showed the district’s problems were systemic. In a follow-up report, Gamm deepened her scope, and noted that special education problems have a long and complicated history in Darien.

In the face of unprecedented findings of illegal activity, Wesolowski assured Shelton that she knows the law.

“I am well versed in federal statutes and corresponding state regulations, specifically the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], and use this knowledge to guide my work…” she wrote to Shelton, after the first state report was delivered. The district was later found to have violated the law 32 times.

In her résumé, sent after the state’s second report, Wesolowski also notes how she trained “staff in special education law and regulations within IDEA and state regulations.” The district’s training materials were riddled with illegal directives, the state and investigator Gamm found.

Wesolowski also tells Shelton that she ensures that the teams she leads “adhere to the guidelines… to make eligibility determinations for special education…”

Darien was found to have restricted certain services by using illegal eligibility criteria. For example, to be eligible for summer school, a child had to show they were falling behind. State law requires a district also use other criteria, such as social engagement and level of independence. The district’s guidelines for adaptive physical education were also found to be illegal, as the district was only allowing children with physical disabilities to be considered for the less strenuous form of P.E.

Wesolowski, of Larchmont, N.Y., also notes how she aligned “the philosophies and practices of general education, special education and (SRBI) teams at the elementary and middle school levels.”

One of the key elements in investigator Gamm’s report was the lack of data showing whether SRBI was working. This intervention program is designed to give extra help to students who begin to struggle in class, but critics say it’s often used to delay providing more expensive special education services to children with disabilities.

“I have been an active (SRBI) team member and staff developer, serving as a leader in providing intervention strategies and data-collection techniques,” Wesolowski wrote in her July 31 inquiry.

When Gamm asked for SRBI data, she was given none. The data she used in her report were given to her by The Darien Times, which obtained it through an earlier Freedom of Information Act request. Even these data, Gamm found, were insufficient in determining SRBI’s effectiveness.

“I understand the complexity of the processes involved in special education, and employ a balance of sensitivity to families and commitment to data-based decision making,” Wesolowski wrote.

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.

Wesolowki’s résumé and application are full of references to her work with SRBI. She discusses how she “guided… teachers in writing… SRBI goals…” and how she “conducted professional development sessions regarding SRBI…” She also claims to have “evaluated current SRBI practices and plan [sic] for next steps in implementation and improvement.”

Gamm’s survey found that 45% of staff and 55% of parent respondents felt that they were not provided adequate information on the SRBI process. An additional 51% of staff indicated the district did not provide clear guidelines to them to help them consider if a child was making progress within a reasonable amount of time.

Supporting Wesolowski in 2011 with a letter of recommendation was Antoinette Fornshell, a former literacy coordinator who worked with Wesolowksi on SRBI matters. Fornshell resigned a few weeks before Falcone resigned to take a higher paying job in Greenwich.

Wesolowski also claimed to work well with parents on developing education plans.

In a letter of recommendation written in 2011, Keith Margolus, Royle School principal, lauds Wesolowski’s “judgment in the most difficult of circumstances.”

“In the face of a persistent advocate or angry parent who made unnecessary or misguided requests and demands, Liz has proven to be a professional with personal strength and professional expertise,” Margolus wrote.

Wesolowski was one of three top administrators who parents say orchestrated last year’s illegal special education program. Problems began with the hiring of Deirdre Osypuk as special education director. Osypuk was placed on paid leave in June and has been paid more than $96,000 since. Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent for elementary education, has been cited by some parents as the leader of the district’s illegal campaign.

Further confusing matters, Wesolowski states that she reported to Pandolfo and Falcone in her employment application, despite Osypuk directly supervising her for 11 months before being place on leave.

Wesolowski cites integrity as one of three key tenants that she uses, along with perseverance and optimism, “as a foundation for my interactions, choices and actions.”

“One who acts with integrity is principled and accountable,” she wrote. “I am accountable not only to goals and beliefs, but to the people who make up the school community, as well. While designing and providing professional development this year, I kept integrity and accountability in the forefront of my mind.”

Zero employees have faced any penalties as a result of the district’s illegal special education program, and not a single district employee has apologized for putting the town’s most vulnerable children at risk. The elementary special ed program, which Wesolowski directed, saw the most problems last year. There were more procedural complaints at the elementary level last year than there were in the entire district the previous two years combined. Months before the state even began its investigation, two complaints resulted in findings of violations to federal law.

Wesolowski noted her responsibilities included oversight of certain positions, such as speech and language therapists. Julie Bookbinder resigned as the district’s top speech and language pathologist soon after Osypuk was hired and Wesolowski took over as assistant director. In a scathing eight-page condemnation of the district’s special education program, Bookbinder cited Wesolowski and Osypuk as driving a culture change and demeaning other staff members.

The driver for this attempted culture change has been attributed to overly needy parents trying to get excessive services for their children with disabilities, which led to over-spending in special education. In emails obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, Osypuk discusses this culture change and its necessary implementation. Wesolowski echoed her on-leave director in her application.

“When inspiring change and growth, one should expect that it can be slow and difficult, which is why being patient is imperative,” Wesolowski wrote. “A determined administrator does not allow him or herself to be shaken in the face of opposition…”

Wesolowski has not responded to requests for comment. Mark Holden, Shelton’s school board chairman, and Freeman Burr Jr., Shelton’s superintendent, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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