Auditors find litany of problems with special ed forms

Auditors tasked with scrutinizing Darien Schools’ excess cost reimbursements for special education services have found so many problems that they are saying it will take three or four times the amount of effort and time to determine how deep the problems go.

Jon Zagrodzky, chairman of the audit committee on the Board of Finance, told the Board of Education at its Jan. 22 meeting that auditors CohnReznick started uncovering the problems soon after it began to examine Darien’s reimbursement applications on Jan. 1.

“There were just a lot of problems with how procedures and processes” mandated by the state were followed,” Zagrodzky told the board. “There were a lot of mistakes and paperwork deficiencies, as [the auditor] put it.”

Allegations surfaced during the special education investigations last year that the district might have applied for reimbursements for special education services it didn’t provide. Some parents told The Darien Times that there were names of staff on their children’s education plans who no longer worked in the district, and that some employees’ names appeared on several students’ plans as full-time aides.

Most of the applications for excess cost reimbursements were for in-district services, according to records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. For the 2012-13 school year — the year being audited — Darien applied for reimbursements for 73 students in-district, and 23 students in other schools.

Zagrodzky emphasized that the Board of Finance is committed to ensuring this audit is as thorough as possible.

The auditors “shouldn’t just report what the deficiencies are,” he said. They “should literally go through and reconstruct every last calculation with every last piece of data to get this right.”

The firm estimated its fee to perform this forensic audit to be between $12,000 and $15,000. The Board of Finance appropriated $30,000 for this audit before estimates came in. Kate Buch, town finance director, told The Times in an email that even with the expanded scope of the audit, the total cost should remain within the appropriated amount.

“If and when it becomes evident that it will exceed that amount, we will have to get another transfer,” Buch said.

Costs for fixing the special education crisis surpassed $700,000 this year, and it is estimated to cost $1 million this fiscal year alone, contributing significantly to the district’s projected $725,000 budget deficit. Most of these costs have gone to lawyer’s fees. An additional $600,000 in tuition for children with disabilities to attend other schools has also contributed to the deficit, as more parents placed their children in other schools, unhappy with the district’s plan for their children.

John Verre, the special education ombudsman, noted the correlation between quality of service and the number of children who are placed in other schools. As the quality of services to children with disabilities gets better, more children tend to return to their home schools, he said. Currently, 10% of disabled children are in other schools, a figure that Verre said was too high.

These expenses have inspired strong emotions on several sides of the debate, with some saying parents have used the law to “win the lottery” of a private school placement at public expense, and others saying the district provided a “lousy” education to children with disabilities and parents had no choice but to send them elsewhere. Still others claim Darien has a history of placing children with physical or other difficult disabilities to other schools to retain an image of perfection.

Zagrodzky discussed the importance of spending the money now to lay the issue to bed so the town can move forward.

“We think the expenditures to go through that process are justified,” he said. “Because I think in the end, we’ll be able to represent to you… that this audit was done in a complete fashion and the results of it give us a complete set of facts… We’ll be able to look at those results and feel they have a lot of integrity.”

“Our sincere goal is to make sure when you look” at the results of the forensic audit, “you can say it was done in a complete fashion,” he said, addressing parents in the audience at the meeting. “We want to make sure we move forward in a way with better processes and procedures to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Finance Chairman Liz Mao said that management concerns have been on her board’s radar for years.

“Out of this problem that’s arisen…. is an opportunity,” Mao said. “This is the time to really rethink the organization and people that you have here in this 35 Leroy [Ave.] building. You need to up the game here. You need people who have the talent to manage budgets, file reports, implement policies…”

“What we’ve seen by our window into special ed, is that you don’t really have that talent here,” Mao said.

The special education crisis led to the resignation of the superintendent and the special education director. Others left Darien for similar jobs in other towns. Verre is offering insight on restructuring special education by eliminating one of two assistant director positions and adding eight special education student service facilitators and enhancing professional development programs.

In light of everything that’s happened, Mao said this is not the year to be adversarial about the school board budget.

“We’re going to represent the taxpayers,” Mao said of her board’s role. “I think the taxpayers are on notice — we have a problem and we’re all determined to fix it.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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