Negotiations between school administrators and the Board of Education drew contentious debate at two arbitration hearings over the weekend, with lawyers on both sides using the special education debacle to try and sway the arbitration panel.
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 declined to comment after the hearing, where he 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 to 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.
Sides are heard
Carleen Wood, co-president of the union and the district’s assistant director for special education, said during her Saturday testimony that agreeing to the one-year rollover would be akin to saying that the administrators were all wrong and admitting culpability, something that Wood said would be untrue.
“I believe that there are certain things that happened that were unfortunate and the trust was broken, I absolutely agree with that,” Wood said, noting that there are talented people who work hard for all the district’s students, regardless of ability.
On Friday, Gesmonde said 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.
At the Saturday hearing, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao said that a raise in administrator salaries after the problems within the special education department probably would be voted down. Mao said people are “infuriated” with what happened and she could not imagine how people would want to give a pay raise to people responsible for cost overruns that will be at least $750,000.
“Why would we give them a raise? I don’t know on what planet you would give people a raise who are responsible for running over a budget by $750,000, in reality $1 million. In reality, it doesn’t compute,” she said.
Mao said politically and personally it would not be feasible to go to town citizens with a budget for an increase in administrators’ salaries this year. She said she would go to the Representative Town Meeting and would not be able to defend an increase. Mao said that the town and administrators’ union are bargaining collectively and that there should be some “collective responsibility” for what’s happened.
“I would much rather get through these bad times, put in places the right people and right processes to go forward, put this terrible time behind us and all get together and look forward to re-instilling the confidence in our town administration of the schools,” she said. “I just can’t, in the middle of it, start talking about raises when I’ve got to find $1 million.”
Stevenson agreed, but was less harsh in her opinion during her testimony the day before.
“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.”
Ox Ridge School Principal Luke Forshaw, a member of the administrators union, talked about his role with the district’s special education process and his involvement with former special education Director Deirdre Osypuk, who resigned from her job last week after being placed on paid leave in June. The district claims that Osypuk’s resignation was “voluntary and unconditional,” meaning she forfeited $84,000 in her remaining annual salary.
Forshaw said he understands the board’s standpoint that the Board of Education does not want to add raises given the circumstances, but he did not feel as though there’s been a negotiation.
“My perception of the negotiating process is that it doesn’t feel like we’re negotiating,” he said, adding later that the administrators’ membership was not comfortable with the initial one-year hold and they wanted to talk about it among themselves and then speak with an attorney. Forshaw told attorney Mooney that he could not say if the Board of Education was negotiating in bad faith.
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.
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.
Forshaw said he did not believe he received any unethical advice from Osypuk. He said that he had questions about new guidelines and eligibility criteria, but he did not think that the actions were illegal. Forshaw also said he did not think that there were plans afoot to eliminate the Therapeutic Learning Center program at Ox Ridge.
Many parents, including those without children with disabilities, said that Osypuk had planned on eliminating TLC and returning children to their homes schools. Parents were disappointed in this proposal, and brought their concerns to then-Superintendent Steve Falcone, who told them TLC would not be disbanded. Falcone reiterated this point to . Parents have said that the only reason TLC remains in tact is because they expressed dissatisfaction with Osypuk’s plan, who then changed her mind and decided to keep TLC in response to parents’ concerns.
Assistant director Wood told her attorney, Gesmonde, that she approached Falcone on Sept. 10, 2012 and several times after that that she had concerns about what was going on with the district. Wood said she met with Falcone about the direction of the district under Osypuk, including concerns about the morale of teachers and staff and that some of the directives issued could be illegal.
Wood said she did not have knowledge of what Falcone was or was not doing with the information she gave to him.
“I had no knowledge of what the superintendent was and was not doing. I assumed when given information like this, that something proactive would be done,” she said. “I was not told that we would not do anything about it.” Wood said she did her best with her responsibilities.
Wood said in her 28 years of public school service, she had not seen or heard anyone contact a school board directly or not go through administrative channels to report concerns.
Wood said she asked Osypuk about why some of the individualized education programs, or IEPs, were not being done in a timely manner because Osypuk had taken away her administrative capabilities under IEP Direct in order to turn them around to parents.
However, in an 18-page letter to interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson, Osypuk claimed that Wood was responsible for 60% of the late IEPs that were uncovered in the recent investigation. This amounts to 102 out of 169 IEPs that were found to have been delivered after the five-day deadline mandated by state law.
“Of the 269 IEPs she was responsible for finalizing, this administrator was late on 38% of them,” Osypuk said, alluding to Wood. Wood declined to comment.
At the arbitration hearing, Wood told Mooney that there is still work to be done and she wants to be one of the people to help restore the trust of the community and she wants “to be part of moving forward. However, Wood said that the one-year, no-raise deal appears to be more of a political move used by the school board as a means to help the community move forward.
The special education crisis in Darien has led to the resignation of superintendent Falcone and special education director Osypuk. Other administrators have resigned to take high-paying 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.
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.
Arbitrator Susan Meredith said a decision on one of the proposals would be reached by the panel sometime in mid-February.
Originally published in The Darien Times.