Shelton’s school chief says his district hired Darien’s No. 2 special education administrator over 18 other applicants for a top-level position there.
Freeman Burr Jr., Shelton’s superintendent, said that “several candidates” had the “appropriate qualifications, experience and certifications,” but they decided to go with the controversial candidate.
Shelton hired Liz Wesolowski, assistant director of elementary special education, for a similar position in Shelton. Wesolowski, of Larchmont, N.Y., took a $6,000 pay cut to take the Shelton job, which is an additional 30 miles into Connecticut from her home.
Wesolowski was one of three administrators who parents have said orchestrated last year’s illegal special education program. Julie Bookbinder, the district’s former head of speech and language pathology, was told by Darien staff that Wesolowski joined her director, Deirdre Osypuk, in insulting former Director Robin Pavia and her work.
“It is as if there are only two special education administrators who matter, Deirdre and Liz,” Bookbinder wrote in September of 2012 in a letter that was the basis for the resignation of former superintendent Steve Falcone.
Regardless of the implications, Shelton’s superintendent Burr stood behind Wesolowski’s hire.
“Prior to undertaking the interview process, we were well aware of Darien and its special education issues,” Burr wrote in a statement to The Darien Times. “We intently reviewed the [state’s] report and the executive summary of Susan Gamm.”
Gamm’s report uncovered an assortment of problems. Shelton parents have raised concerns about Wesolowski’s hire, and wonder if she was hired because of her work in Darien, and not in spite of it. Her only experience as a top administrator was during Darien’s year of broken laws.
In her employment application, Wesolowski touted her knowledge of the law, despite the district breaking the law 32 times. Shelton parents worry that either she knew about the problems and did nothing, or she helped create the problems. Many Darien special educators got jobs elsewhere or simply resigned, like Bookbinder and autism specialist Nicole Querzé, when they saw the district was breaking the law. Wesolowski stayed.
“[W]e followed up on listed recommendations and other references available to us, including current and former professional colleagues and supervisors….” Burr wrote.
Wesolowski’s references included Falcone, who abruptly resigned as superintendent when it was learned he withheld Bookbinder’s scathing critique from the Board of Education, and Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. Pandolfo has been named by parents and a former administrator as the core driver behind last year’s special education changes. Former director Pavia said Pandolfo blocked the implementation of a special education operations manual because the manual left no room for legal interpretation.
“I could see no reason for the manual to be kept in limbo, except for one,” Pavia wrote. “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.”
Laura Conte held Wesolowski’s current position before leaving in 2012, and said she was told to report to Pandolfo her last year, despite Pavia being the special education department’s director.
“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,” Conte said. “In my personal opinion, it set the wheels in motion to change the regime.”
Burr noted that based on Shelton’s “exhaustive interview process,” Wesolowski was their top choice.
“[W]e are quite comfortable with our choice and believe Dr. Wesolowski will thrive in Shelton’s student centered learning environment that has produced increased outcomes for students over the past five years,” Burr wrote.
Outcomes for Darien’s children with disabilities did not improve last year in the elementary schools, which Wesolowski oversaw. The state Department of Education recognized that there is a defined achievement gap between standardized test scores for all students and students with disabilities.
For example, the state calculates what it calls a “district performance index,” or DPI, based on scores on the Connecticut Mastery Test. The DPI ranges from 0 to 100, and 88 is the ultimate target goal, though each subgroup can have lower annual targets as they work to eventually reach 88. The subgroups are broken up into minority groups, those who get free or reduced lunch, and children with disabilities.
In Darien, children with disabilities performed worse in math, reading and writing than in years past. They only did better in science. These children missed target goal in 7 out of 10 areas (children with disabilities are categorized in two groups, with one delineating children with high needs).
The year prior, children with disabilities did better in every single category except one, where they performed the same as the year before. The entire district’s DPI fell by an whole point last year, the largest drop in recent history.
The elementary schools also saw most of the problems last year, according to state data, which showed there were more procedural complaints filed against one school, Ox Ridge, than there had been filed in the entire district the previous two years combined.
Both of Wesolowski’s letters of recommendation were written in 2011 and were aimed at a principal job in Westport.
One Shelton mother said that her child has been doing great in Shelton, but fears that might all change once Wesolowski takes over. She is concerned that Wesolowski’s hiring will take Shelton down the same path as Darien, and that the culture there would become about saving money, rather than providing appropriate services.
“The professionals in Shelton have made a huge difference in my son’s life,” she said. “They have written and followed through on an IEP that allows him to succeed in an environment that is filled with emotional and sensory challenges for him.
“If those accommodations are taken away from him because he is functioning so well on paper, it would absolutely have a disastrous effect.”
Originally published in The Darien Times.