A controversial piece of a complicated puzzle has emerged with an 18-page letter penned by Darien’s former special education director who describes a desperate Board of Education that hired her to fix a culture that catered to the whims of demanding parents and their high-powered lawyers.
Deirdre Osypuk’s letter was sent to the district administration on Dec. 23, in response to attorney Sue Gamm’s final report, which indicated a litany of illegal activities in the special education department.
Osypuk resigned from her position as special education director on Jan. 21 after six months of being on paid leave, getting more than $100,000 during that time. The district said her resignation was “voluntary and unconditional,” meaning she did not receive any severance pay.
But she’s not resigning quietly. The former director claimed that Darien was riddled with conflicts of interest, “insatiable [and] controlling” parents who operated within a culture that provided “beyond appropriate” services to children with disabilities. Osypuk claimed that the district paid for summer school in other states or countries for disabled kids because their parents would be vacationing in those places.
Robin Pavia, former special education director and the target of many of Osypuk’s claims, told The Darien Times that she couldn’t discuss these allegations because it would violate confidentiality agreements, if Osypuk’s claims were accurate.
“I can tell you, there are a lot of compromises that the district will make in mediation to solve a bigger problem,” Pavia said.
Osypuk said that parents and their lawyers would “demand” certain services and special education teachers, even if other staff felt it was inappropriate and could hurt the child’s “social well-being.” She also said that it was clear the Board of Education hired her to change this culture, although board members have denied that happened.
School board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said that her board still has a “legitimate concern” over the appropriateness of the district’s special education program, but following the law is a top priority.
Attorney Gamm said that “the district must address this issue by first adopting appropriate procedures to assure that the decision-making process is consistent with law,” Hagerty-Ross stated in an email.
Gamm’s report showed that the Board of Education claimed it did not order the cessation of services to children with disabilities, even though services were cut.
Hagerty-Ross “emphatically stated that the school system was ‘never under direction to cut services’,” Gamm wrote in her report.
Osypuk, however, noted that she felt “uncomfortable” after meeting with the school board, and claims members told her the special education department was “out of control” with one board member saying: “We want change and we want it now!”
“I remember these comments distinctly because I was so uncomfortable after my interview with the [school board] that I called [then-Superintendent Steve Falcone] and told him that if the expectation was for me to cut services to save money, then I was not the person for the job,” Osypuk wrote. “He assured me that was not his expectation.”
“Had I known what I learned shortly after I was hired, I’m not sure I would have accepted the job,” she continued.
Hagerty-Ross said that ultimately, Osypuk was responsible for abiding by the law.
“As to the board’s perspective on Dr. Osypuk’s performance, I will simply note that Dr. Osypuk was responsible for compliance with the law,” Hagerty-Ross wrote. “The board did hear from Dr. Osypuk as to her plans for changes. However, since then the board has received two state reports and attorney Gamm’s report. All three documents identify specific legal problems with the district’s special education practices and procedures during Dr. Osypuk’s administration.”
Osypuk claims that Gamm’s methodology was flawed, and that she ignored evidence that would have put the situation into context. She also said that she inherited a broken system full of “conflicts of interests” that she “considered to be unethical.” A small group of “vocal parents” were used to getting what they wanted under Pavia, Osypuk said. When that stopped happening, parents got upset, she said, and asked her to change their children’s education plans. She recalled one parent who directed IEP changes to district staff, dictating to one of Osypuk’s secretaries “changes to related services, start dates, end dates and transportation,” which, if accurate, would be in violation of federal law, she said.
This parent told The Darien Times that she did this because on five separate occasions, the district failed to develop her child’s education plan according to the planning and placement team meeting’s decisions.
Osypuk said her efforts to change the culture were met with hostility by parents, even though the school board and superintendent applauded her work.
“When I started to question the district’s obligation to provide these services, this small group of parents and attorneys became very upset because their culture of making ‘back-door deals’ to get what they wanted was being threatened,” Osypuk wrote. “Ironically, these parents have accused the district of doing exactly what they had been allowed to do in the past…”
Pavia said she never once agreed to an education plan before a team meeting.
“The only thing that would happen would be the normal process for parents to mediate, or go to a resolution meeting, those are legal proceedings,” Pavia said. “We did a lot of that to resolve issues so they wouldn’t become litigious.”
Andrew Feinstein, a special education attorney who has sat on the other side of the table from Pavia during mediation hearings, said Pavia was no “sweetheart” when it came to making deals.
“It was no picnic getting a settlement agreement from Robin,” Feinstein said. “She fought back in case after case. Records will show, I’d go through incredibly long mediations to get agreements with her.”
Only three cases were fully litigated during Pavia’s tenure, and all three ended in the district’s favor.
“Things settle,” Feinstein said. “Nobody in their right mind is going to a hearing” because the financial implications for a district are often more costly than any services in dispute. When cases go to a full hearing, it severs any positive relationship between the district and the parents who brought the complaint, Pavia said.
Nevertheless, Osypuk describes that she was hired to change a culture of overly litigious parents — a culture in which only lawyers benefited.
“The culture that existed prior to my being hired was one where a few insatiable, controlling, and intimidating special education parents were given preferential treatment and catered to in order to avoid costly litigation,” Osypuk wrote. “District attorneys were relied heavily upon to make deals with these parents’ attorneys to ‘keep them quiet’.”
The embattled former employee claimed that legal fees dropped significantly under her tenure, but a review of legal bills shows the opposite.
“Under the previous special education administration, Shipman & Goodwin’s billing had been significantly higher than during my tenure,” Osypuk wrote.
Legal bills tell a different story. During Pavia’s last year, the district spent $82,097.50 on special education legal expenses, which averages to $6,841.46 per month. During Osypuk’s first year, the district spent $93,907, which is $7,825 per month. This does not include three months during her tenure when Darien dropped more than $90,000 as it navigated its way through the parents’ complaint with the state. In total, Darien spent $183,069.50 on special education legal fees under Osypuk in her first year alone.
Special education lawyer Jen Laviano experienced this reality first hand.
“I can tell you my case load in Darien increased when [Osypuk] took over, not the opposite, and also that Robin Pavia and I were able to resolve matters without even going to mediation,” Laviano said.
Kathleen Casparino, owner of Connecticut Educational Services, also saw her Darien clientele double after Osypuk took over.
“I also think it is important to note that neither Darien nor most districts ever pay anything towards parents’ attorneys’ fees prior to litigation,” Laviano said. “This certainly doesn’t sound like a situation where a small group of ‘insatiable’ attorneys were benefiting from a previously broken system.”
Attorney Gamm noted that Osypuk rarely used legal help, and Osypuk said as much in her letter. This further confuses the matter, given that legal fees increased under Osypuk.
Yet Osypuk said that the school board applauded her efforts, although it has since distanced itself from her in the midst of this crisis.
“I received much praise for this budget from my superiors, the [school board] and the Board of Finance,” Osypuk wrote, claiming she got her budget not by cutting services but by “eliminating inefficiencies that had no impact on children.”
Internal emails supported Osypuk’s claim, with Board of Finance members praising her for her better management of special education.
She also said she had the full support of Falcone, Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent, and Matt Byrnes, then assistant superintendent. Pandolfo continues to be named by parents and some staff members as having been the driving force behind last year’s problems.
When the state came to Darien for its investigation late last school year, after 25 parents filed a complaint, alleging systemic violations to special education law, Osypuk said she was prepared to tell the state “the truth” about Darien and its past problems, but that Falcone urged caution.
“[B]efore the state came into the district to conduct its interviews, I was asked by the superintendent what I was going to say,” Osypuk wrote. “I said that I would tell the truth. [Falcone’s] response was that it had “…better not be that the problems were due to ‘back-door deals’ cut by Robin Pavia.”
Osypuk alleged that investigator Gamm and attorneys did not want to hear about problems prior to Osypuk’s tenure.
“The problems with Darien’s special education department began long before I was hired,” Osypuk wrote. “One of these problems was the skyrocketing budget.”
Much of the increase in the budget was due to children being placed in other schools. Data shows that Darien sends an disproportionate number of students with emotional disturbance, autism and intellectual impairments to other schools than it should, according to ombudsman John Verre. Many of these kids also have dyslexia, and many parents have said these kids could easily be taught in-district if the Darien’s reading curriculum was more rigorous and if teachers were certified in the Orton-Gillingham method.
Tensions flared among personnel after Osypuk’s arrival. According to sources within the district, Osypuk clashed with Carleen Wood, assistant director of special education and Pavia’s pick for her replacement. While never referring to Wood by name, Osypuk claims that Wood had problems getting IEPs delivered to parents within the five-day legal limit, and considered putting a letter in Wood’s personnel file, but Falcone “discouraged” her from doing so.
Untimely delivery of IEPs was one of 32 violations that Gamm noted in her report. Osypuk said that 60% of the late IEPs were due to Wood, or 102 out of 169 of them.
“Of the 269 IEPs she was responsible for finalizing, this administrator was late on 38% of them,” Osypuk said. It’s unclear how Osypuk knew that exact number since, according to the district, she did not have access to district files after being placed on leave. Wood declined to comment.
Osypuk alleged that an autism inclusion specialist had been recommending and delivering home services for some students and “earning an additional $18,000 per year beyond her salary…” Osypuk said that having the same person recommend and provide a service was a clear conflict of interest.
Others weigh in
Stacie Fernandes, a paraprofessional in Darien with 16 years of experience, said that any parent of a child with a disability, in any town across the country, would advocate for their children’s education.
“There are parents in every district that push for services that might be considered excessive,” Fernandes told The Times. “If it was my child, would I do that, too? I don’t know.”
John Sini, a parent of children with disabilities and a member of the Planning & Zoning Commission, has made his stance clear.
Osypuk’s “allegations not only call into question the actions of our administration before the district’s problems were verified, but also raise doubt that remedies since put in place will prove to be effective,” Sini stated in an email to the Board of Education, copying Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson and later obtained by The Darien Times. “These latest allegations point to serious problems that extend well beyond the special education program, possibly negatively impacting the well-being of every child within our district.”
The district is currently the subject of a forensic audit, after allegations surfaced that that administration applied for expense reimbursements for special education services it didn’t provide under Osypuk’s tenure. Sini said Osypuk’s allegations of prior impropriety should warrant further scrutiny into Darien’s past special education practices.
“I believe a comprehensive investigation and audit of school spending and activities before the 2012-13 school year is the only path that will eventually allow town officials, school administration and staff, parents, and taxpayers to regain their confidence in the public institution,” Sini said. As of Wednesday morning, Sini told The Times he had received no response to his email.
It remains unclear if state or federal education authorities will initiate a new investigation into the district, as they have not responded to requests for comment.
For attorney Feinstein, the picture is somewhat different than Sini’s view.
Osypuk’s revelations “are the self-justifying ravings of a woman who has been caught ignoring the requirements of a federal civil rights law,” Feinstein said. “Ms. Osypuk substantially reduced the quality of education of children with disabilities in Darien. Sadly, she never believed in the goal of special education.”
Osypuk’s letter also sparked interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson to make her first ever public comment on a personnel matter in her 32 years in education.
“I believe that Dr. Osypuk’s comments were disrespectful of parents, and dismissive of their legitimate concerns,” Pierson told the school board at its Jan. 28 meeting.
“Ms. Osypuk tries to salvage her own reputation by blaming everyone else in sight,” Feinstein said. ”In Ms. Osypuk’s world, all the authorities on special education law are wrong. Darien would do well to ignore Ms. Osypuk’s letter…”
Fernandes said that she used to know what was happening in Darien’s special education department, but since Osypuk reduced her responsibilities, the only thing she knows is that employees are scared to come forward.
“Darien has some great, dedicated employees and they have all been shoved behind the dark cloud that now hangs over the Darien school district,” Fernandes said. “All everyone talks about is this big mess created by our administrators. What about the rest of the staff?”
She said that special education staff “used to hold their heads high when they said they worked in Darien,” and now they “whisper ‘Darien’.”
“Now we need to move on and get back to doing what’s right for our students,” she said.
Originally published in The Darien Times.