No raise for admins; arbitrators find school board equally culpable for special ed

School administrators will not be given raises this year, saving the district $68,000 after an arbitration panel decision. However, the panel found that responsibility for last year’s special education debacle should be shared among all those involved, including the Board of Education.

School administrators had asked for a 2% raise, but the Board of Ed claimed last year’s special education problems were reason to deny this request. In its decision, the three-member arbitration panel gave “serious consideration” to the implications stemming from Darien’s special education problems.

“The commitment to resolve the mistakes and get the program on track again take precedence over giving a salary increase to the administrators,” the panel stated, after citing projected clean-up costs of up to $1 million.

This issue, however, was not the reason for keeping the administrators’ salaries flat. The panel decided not to give the raise because Darien administrators already earn the highest average salaries in Connecticut. Twenty-three members will earn an average of $147,823 this year.

“The administrators in this bargaining unit are not solely to blame for the problems identified in the education of children with disabilities,” the panel stated in its 74-page decision, adding that the “primary responsibility rested with those higher administrators, not members of this [union], who have left the district.”

There is only one non-union member who has left the district, former Superintendent Steve Falcone. He now runs Stamford Schools’ human resources department. Former union member and special education Director Deirdre Osypuk resigned after being on paid leave for six months. Liz Wesolowski, a former union member and assistant director of special education for elementary students, resigned in January to take a similar job in Shelton. She was responsible for administering the intervention program that was riddled with problems, according to the investigation by Chicago attorney Sue Gamm.

But responsibility did not end with the administration, the panel found.

“The [school] board, in its oversight capacity, shared the responsibility,” the panel stated. Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, apologized on behalf of the district late last year, after Gamm reported her findings and months after the state found the district broke the law. Hagerty-Ross initially defended the district, calling parents’ claims “mischaracterizations” of the district’s special education program.

The panel, which was comprised of lawyers Susan Meredith, John Romanow and James Ferguson, emphasized that its decision was not a punitive measure against the administrators.

“The failure to give the administrators a salary increase… is not in any way a punishment of the members,” the panel wrote. “Rather, we have recognized that the difficult situation in Darien caused by actions taken in the special education program does have an impact” on the panel’s decision-making.

Hagerty-Ross told The Darien Times that this was the first time in recent history that administrators and the school board entered into arbitration, which happened because the two groups could not come to a contract agreement. The present agreement gives no raises to members of the administrators’ union, but they will get 2% raises on each of the following two years.

“We’re happy it’s over, and it’s a step in the right direction,” Hagerty-Ross said. “We’re gratified for all those involved. It’s a team effort — the town, the Board of Finance, the selectmen, the parents, the Board of Education. This is an important part of the healing process.”

Administrators had argued that not taking a raise would be admitting culpability for last year’s problems, which involved mismanagement, violations to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and problems with applications for state reimbursements.

The union does not include the superintendent or assistant superintendents, which are positions filled, or previously filled, by people who many parents said played key roles in last year’s illegal special education program. The school board’s lawyer, Tom Mooney, however, argued that the Darien Administrators Union was solely responsible for the special education crisis, and that top administrators and the Board of Education had little to do with the crisis.

Mooney’s “position was not supported by the evidence this panel heard and read, including the extensive investigations conducted into the problems and issues in the program,” the panel’s decision read.

John Gesmonde, an attorney who represented the administrators, said the panel’s decision should be considered a “win” for his clients, and claimed the “administrators won the majority of all the issues.”

Of the 18 debated issues, the panel decided on eight in favor of the administrators, and 10 in favor of the school board. These debates involved language disagreements in the contract, insurance contributions, grievance definitions and grounds for termination.

In an email, Mooney said the “award speaks for itself” and did not comment further.

The panel found that there was “virtually no meaningful negotiation” between the administrators and the Board of Education before the groups entered into arbitration. The school board proposed a one-year rollover of the current contract and would not discuss alternative options, the panel stated.

“The board took a stand and we carried it through,” Hagerty-Ross said. The arbitrators found that the board was not willing to discuss raises for the second and third years of the administrators’ proposed contract. Its only offer was a one-year rollover.

“The board’s reluctance to engage in meaningful discussion about wages” did not prevent the panel from hearing arguments to the contrary, the decision read.

When asked if she were comfortable with the current personnel working in the district, Hagerty-Ross declined to comment, saying that interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson and John Verre are still examining how best to distribute personnel.

Not a single staff member has been terminated as a result of last year’s problems. Several employees resigned and took six-figure jobs in other school districts.

Rita Ferri, Hindley School principal and president of the Darien Administrators Association, did not respond to requests for comment. Former co-presidents Debi Boccanfuso, Middlesex Middle School principal, and Carleen Wood, assistant director of special education, declined to comment.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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