Departing principal cites accused lawbreakers as references

Another Darien administrator has joined several of his colleagues in exodus, leading to a variety of concerns about the integrity of the school system and if Darien will be able to attract quality school leaders.

Royle School Principal Keith Margolus resigned two weeks ago after spending his entire career in Darien. His resignation comes as the district pushes toward comprehensive structural and managerial changes to fix an assortment of problems that came to a head last year, culminating in findings that the district broke state and federal special education law in at least 32 instances.

Margolus, who has not responded to requests for comment, is leaving in July to take over as principal at Branchville Elementary School in Ridgefield.

Margolus’s application to work there appears to contradict findings evidenced in a two-part state report and a $196,000 independent investigation. He also includes as references two people who were named by some parents as part of the problems last year.

In his resume, which was provided to The Darien Times via a Freedom of Information Act request, Margolus includes four bullet points related to his work with special education and SRBI, which is an intervention program that was found to have severe flaws in Darien. Attorney Sue Gamm found that neither staff nor parents had a clear understanding of how SRBI worked, and that the district may have used SRBI to delay providing more intensive special education services. While this delay occurs, some children can develop behavior problems which can then affect the entire classroom, experts say.

Margolus’s resume also notes his ability to “[l]ead, plan, and coordinate the special education process and personal [sic].” He also claims to have analyzed the “impact of revised early intervention process and implemented [a] growth plan.”

It’s unclear if Margolus is referencing to work done before or after the Gamm report. Gamm found that the SRBI manual, which was not given to her and which she had to find while performing a Google search, ordered staff to only give parents “general information” about their students’ progress, which goes against state recommendations that parents are to be given specific data-driven information on their children.

Margolus also said he “[c]oordinated special education and SRBI professional development.” While it’s again unclear if he’s referring to work before or after the report, Gamm found that 45% of staff and 55% of parents surveyed were unclear about SRBI practices. An additional 51% of staff indicated the district did not provide clear guidelines to help them consider if a child was making progress within a reasonable amount of time.

District administration has not provided any reports during any Board of Education meeting regarding SRBI professional development and policy changes since the Gamm report was delivered.

The Royle principal also discusses his efforts to establish “technology-based student data collection.” Gamm found that Darien had virtually no data on student progress. When she asked the district for SRBI data, she was given none. Instead, she used data reported in The Darien Times, which obtained it through an earlier Freedom of Information request.

For references, Margolus cites Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. Pandolfo’s work has fallen under heavy scrutiny recently, and some parents, and at least one former administrator, have said that Pandolfo’s influence on the special education program was a primary driver for last year’s problems.

Pandolfo also drew attention to Margolus’s work with SRBI.

“At the district level, he has provided leadership in the development of our process for SRBI and for rewriting Darien’s progress reports,” Pandolfo wrote.

“He is a good listener for all members of the school community, whether they are staff members, parents, or students…” she continued.

It’s unclear whether Pandolfo is referencing work Margolus performed after the state and Gamm reports, which would indicate his efforts to fix the flawed program.

In 2011, Margolus wrote a letter of recommendation for Liz Wesolowski, formerly the assistant director of special education who was also named by some parents as a contributor to last year’s debacle. His letter lauded Wesolowski for being able to deal with “angry parent[s]” who make “unnecessary or misguided requests or demands.”

Also supporting Margolus was Steve Falcone, the ex-superintendent who resigned abruptly in October after the Board of Education met in a four-hour executive session to discuss his performance. Two weeks later, Falcone was hired in Stamford where he took another six-figure job as director of human resources. Falcone also cited Pandolfo as a reference.

Falcone avoided referencing special education and SRBI in his recommendation, opting instead to note that Margolus “participates in district-wide curriculum writing, hiring, and policy development.”

It remains unclear if Margolus assisted in the development of last year’s special education policies, given the numerous remarks about special education his referees highlighted.

Margolus’s name, however, has come up infrequently by parents of children with disabilities as having been part of last year’s problems. His peers, including principals Mary Michelson and Paula Bleakley, wrote letters of recommendation highlighting his strong communication skills and leadership in the district.

“I can’t imagine our district leadership without Keith,” Michelson, who is principal at Tokeneke School, wrote in her letter of recommendation. “He is a complete school leader whose talents and skills will serve” Ridgefield and the “district community.”

Holmes School principal Bleakley echoed her colleague.

His “natural instincts, collaborative nature, and deep knowledge of curriculum will serve him well as he moves forward into a new principalship,” Bleakley wrote. “Although it will be a great loss to our community, I support Keith in his exploration of positions closer to his home.”

Resident Reva Corrigan noted that Margolus will be missed.

“I am sorry that Keith Margolus is leaving Darien schools,” Corrigan wrote in a letter to The Darien Times. “We knew him as a fifth grade teacher at Holmes School and always thought he was one of the best.”

The pressing concern for some people in the community is that administrators were aware of what was happening last year, but, at best, did nothing to stop it. At worst, they helped create and implement the illegal program. It was found that Darien reduced, restricted and denied educational services to children with disabilities to save money.

Soon after these facts were learned, administrators argued for a 2% raise, which spurned the Board of Education into spending $59,000 in legal fees to fight this $68,000 request, which ended in the board’s favor. The district is currently projecting a deficit of $807,000 and has spent nearly $1 million fixing its special education program.

Margolus is the fifth administrator to depart Darien under the haze of the special education debacle. All, with one exception, have gone on to other high-paying positions in nearby districts. When the Board of Education accepted Margolus’s resignation, not a single board member mentioned his 14-year service to the community. Margolus has spent his entire career in Darien.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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