PR firms rakes in $50,000 helping schools manage crisis

A Hartford public relations firm billed Darien taxpayers over $50,000 during the past year to help the school district manage public perception of the special education crisis.

McDowell Jewett Communications took home more last year than first-year teachers in Darien, whose base salary is $45,334.

The firm was contracted soon after 25 parents filed a complaint with state Department of Education that included allegations, which were later substantiated, that claimed the district was breaking federal special education law.

Duby McDowell, a former television reporter and partner at the firm, has been paid through the district’s law firm, Shipman & Goodwin. The attorneys have been including an itemized payment to McDowell since May of 2013 for $5,317.50. In January, the firm billed taxpayers another $2,269.90 for copier charges, according to legal invoices provided by the district.

McDowell has not commented on her work in Darien.

“Shipman & Goodwin has asked me to assist the firm as it works to communicate the steps the district is taking to address recent concerns,” McDowell stated in a May email to The Darien Times.

Total bills through January 2014 to McDowell equal $50,154.40. McDowell’s cost also surpassed the average yearly expense to educate a child with a disability in Darien — $32,000.

The Times has filed a Freedom of Information request to review McDowell’s work, but that request was denied by Shipman. In an email, attorney Tom Mooney claimed McDowell’s work was protected under lawyer-client privilege.

This newspaper filed a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission, claiming McDowell’s communications should be made public. A Times Facebook poll showed that 75% of respondents agreed, indicating they would like McDowell’s work to be disclosed.

Communication problems have plagued the district since the complaint surfaced, and some residents have expressed a desire to know what McDowell has done for $5,317.50 a month. Public relations problems were also cited by the panel that decided on the arbitration proceedings between the district administrators and the Board of Education. The panel found that both administrators and the school board were responsible for the special education disaster, which created a public relations challenge for the town.

The school board also cited media coverage as contributing to a bad public image. Those involved complained to the arbitration panel that they were approached often, even “in the grocery store,” by people concerned about special education.

McDowell’s influence seemed to show itself when The Times worked on a story about restraining and secluding children with disabilities. The paper had contacted several organizations to get comment, and one organization was headed by a person who shared the same peculiar last name as one of McDowell’s employees. This organization had been quoted extensively in the media, but when The Times asked for quote, it was told, “we do not have someone available to comment for this story.”

Dan Silver, a lawyer and member of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, said that he doubts Shipman’s claim of lawyer-client privilege will be upheld by the FOI Commission.

“I think it should be discoverable, I do,” Silver said of McDowell’s work. “Generally, if you have a conversation with a lawyer, that information is confidential, and it is considered lawyer-client privilege… The privilege should be waived if a third party has received this information.”

Special education attorney Andrew Feinstein agreed that McDowell’s communications should be publicized.

“Duby has no claim to privilege,” Feinstein earlier said. “The fact that she is paid by Shipman & Goodwin does not make her a lawyer.”

Bills for McDowell were not included in February invoices sent by Shipman to the district. It’s unclear whether she is still assisting Darien in some capacity.

Other costs

Darien is projected to be $1 million in the hole due to costs associated with cleaning up the special education department. The district paid former Superintendent Steve Falcone a severance package of over $67,000 after he suddenly resigned just two weeks before the independent investigator was slated to deliver her findings, which showed Darien had systemic legal problems throughout its special education program.

The district also paid former special education Director Deirdre Osypuk more than $100,000 while she was on paid leave for seven months. Osypuk resigned in January, and her lawyer sent The Times a letter that included her version of the problems exposed by the investigations, citing a culture of demanding parents who overwhelmed the public school system.

One of the top earners in Darien in 2013 was Sue Gamm, the Chicago attorney who carried out the independent investigation. Taxpayers shelled out more than $196,000 to Gamm for roughly four months of work.

Attorney Theresa DeFrancis is also back on the payroll as a consultant. She was originally contracted to help develop training materials for staff, and was asked back to help in other areas. She’s made nearly $16,000.

Special education ombudsman John Verre has taken home more than $91,000 since he was hired two weeks before Falcone resigned. Verre’s position is separate from a special education director, which Darien is currently without. Verre makes $200,000 a year, which is roughly $40,000 more than the director was making.

The district has also set aside $20,000 for a superintendent search. It’s unclear if money has also been set aside for the new special education director search, which is being conducted by the same firm, the New England School Development Council.

An additional $30,000 has been set aside for a forensic audit that has been looking into Darien’s special education books for over three months. The firm, CohnReznick, got started later than it had planned, and also reported finding a number of problems with how the district applied for reimbursements from the state.

Legal expenses related to cleaning up the special education crisis approached $335,000 in February. March legal bills were not yet available.

The district has spent over $910,000 since March of 2013 fixing special education. This money does not include the salary for the interim superintendent, because the full-time version of that position would be a normal expense.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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