Clean-up costs nearing $1 million

If money-saving drove last year’s illegal special education program, the school district seems to now find itself on the other side of the fiscal fence.

Darien has spent nearly $681,000 on expenses related to the special education debacle. This figure does not include legal, public relations or consultant fees through December, nor does it include severance paid to former Superintendent Steve Falcone, or housing stipends paid to new hires. Budget deficit projections resulting from these expenses place the district at $700,000 in the red by the end of the year.

Legal fees are projecting to put the district $470,000 in the hole. The total clean-up costs in The Darien Times’ number include money spent during the last fiscal year, so the budget deficit projection does not include those costs.

Perhaps the most controversial spending has been $37,222.50 paid for public relations help from Duby McDowell Communications. The Darien Times was denied access to this firm’s work by the district’s lawyers, who claim the work is exempt from public disclosure. The Times is challenging that decision through the state Freedom of Information Commission, and are asking the commission to require the district to disclose McDowell’s work. The lawyers say her work is protected under attorney-client privilege, as she is paid through the attorneys’ office.

Chicago attorney Sue Gamm has made a decent living working for four months in town, raking in $167,786.89 for work and expenses. She has been paid $225 per hour to investigate the district’s special education problems, which she found to be riddled with problems and illegal activity.

In October, the month preceding delivery of her first report — Nov. 4 — Gamm reported working 309.5 hours and got paid $71,274.29. She only took one day off that entire month from working in Darien, according to her invoice. She averaged 10.3 hours per day, working 30 days that month. She earlier told The Times that her work in Darien was “the most difficult job of my career,” as the problems were so complicated and involved an assortment of moving parts and a deep history.

School district law firm Shipman & Goodwin have taken home $269,117 helping the schools fix its vast web of special ed problems.

Deirdre Osypuk, the special education director who has been on paid leave since June, has been paid $91,302.40 through Dec. 31.

Theresa DeFrancis, the retired special education attorney hired by the district to create training materials and train staff, has been paid $13,860 through November.

Hearing officer Mary Gelfman has been paid $2,380 through November to act as an informal hearing officer to help parents and the district come to an agreement on education plans for children with disabilities without having to file for due process formally.

John Verre, the special education ombudsman who is restructuring the town’s special education program, has been paid $42,306 through December. He also gets $1,500 a month for living expenses, a number not included in the total cost figure.

Interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson has taken home $22,019 since she started in November. She also is getting two annuity payments totaling $74,000, which is prorated depending on how long she keeps the job. She also gets $1,500 per month for living expenses, a figure not included the above total.

Former superintendent Falcone was paid $45,577 as severance, and he is also eligible for an additional $36,462 for unpaid sick and vacation days. It’s unclear how much total he’s taken in severance, which was paid to him through the end of last year.

The superintendent search firm will cost around $20,000, said Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross. The forensic audit into the district’s special education reimbursements is slated to cost from $12,000 to $15,000. The firm was hired in November, but didn’t start work until January.

A permanent superintendent is still yet to be hired. The district has averaged $45,000 a month since September for legal and public relations costs.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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