Negotiations between school administrators and the Board of Education began Friday, and lawyers on both sides used the special education debacle to try and sway the arbitration panel to deciding in their favor.
Administrators are seeking a 2% raise each year over the next three years, but the school board wants salaries to remain flat for at least one year, claiming this raise request is being made in the middle of a crisis and would only serve to deepen the distrust many parents feel toward the district.
John Gesmonde, lawyer for the Darien Administrators Association, which represents 24 of the highest-paid school employees in the district with a few exceptions, argued for the increase, and schools’ lawyer Tom Mooney argued for the flat year.
“The situation we face is unprecedented,” Mooney said about the special education problems in his opening statement, which was given to The Darien Times as a paper copy after the meeting. Mooney said that the administrators union’s desire for more money “has been illogical, confused and ambivalent,” by claiming that Darien’s “crisis” is not their fault.
“There have been fundamental failures in administrative oversight of providing special education services to children with disabilities,” Mooney said. “Those failures, which we will describe, have caused a crisis in trust and confidence in the school system in general and in administrators in particular.”
Gesmonde countered that the Board of Education knew about the problems for a while before parents filed their complaint in March of 2013 with the state Department of Education, alleging systemic violations to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These violations were later confirmed in two separate investigations.
However, when Gesmonde asked John Verre, the special education ombudsman, if he was aware of parents going to the Board of Ed prior the complaint, expressing the same concerns contained in the complaint, Verre said he was not aware of that happening.
Parents claim the school board was unresponsive to their requests to learn more about the changes in special education, but the board has said the administration was not forthcoming with information it asked for.
Gesmonde noted that Darien Schools have an excellent reputation and urged the panel to consider that the administrators are responsible for a portion of that success.
Jayme Stevenson, first selectman, was called to provide sworn testimony and described Darien’s success as a collaboration between parents and the school district.
“Parents are very involved and give a tremendous amount of support, in the form of time and money,” Stevenson said, in response to a question from Gesmonde about how parents participate. “Parents play a central role in the success of Darien students.”
Many parents spend thousands of dollars per year on private tutoring services, according to conversations with parents of children with various abilities and disabilities.
Mooney countered that asking for more money at the present time would only further fuel the distrust that parents feel toward district administrators. Stevenson agreed.
“Some administrators are deserving” of a raise, Stevenson said, but “I think that the [school] board still needs to identify areas of improvement. I do not think the community would support a raise at this time.”
Also at issue is placing a cap on the percentage the administrators would contribute to their health insurance deductible. The administrators want to cap it off at 22%, but the school board appears uninterested in that idea.
The crisis in Darien has led to the resignation of the superintendent, Steve Falcone, and the special education director, Deirdre Osypuk. Other administrators have resigned to take positions elsewhere, and the district projects spending $1 million when the smoke clears. Five people have been hired to help fix the schools’ problems, and to date, the schools have spent more than $700,000. This figure includes spending from the last fiscal year.
Both Gesmonde and Mooney discussed Darien’s finances. Mooney noted that Darien has not filed its annual audit because of the forensic audit taking place into the district’s expense reimbursements. Gesmonde said that Darien is the third wealthiest community in the state, up one notch from fourth wealthiest last year.
“I’m glad I could bring you good news,” Gesmonde told Kate Buch, town finance director, who said she was not aware that Darien’s relative wealth had increased this year.
Negotiations began on Sept. 11, 2013, but Mooney claimed the administrators didn’t propose its terms until Dec. 2. The two parties then entered mediation but could not come to an agreement. A three-panel board of arbitrators is now hearing both sides, and is meeting again today at Town Hall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.
Today, it’s expected that Liz Mao, Board of Finance chairman, and members of the administrators’ union, such as co-presidents Carlene Wood, assistant director of special education, and Debi Boccanfuso, principal at Middlesex Middle School, will be called to provide sworn testimony.
While the school board and the administration continue pointing fingers at each other, many people hope that the importance of educating children does not get lost in the morass of legal arguments.
Originally published in Thee Darien Times.