Special ed ombudsman says school probe most thorough of his career

The ombudsman charged with revamping Darien Schools’ special education department told the school board that his work in Darien is the most comprehensive of his 40-plus year career.

John Verre continues working with school employees, elected officials and residents to establish a special education program that he says should focus on equity of outcomes among all children in Darien Schools. Obstacles, however, continue to remain, since problems with the most recent year’s program surfaced recently.

In addition to rebuilding the special education program, the ombudsman has been completing an investigation of individualized education plans, or IEPs, going back three years to determine if any children’s plans were altered illegally. It remains unclear, however, if Verre is examining whether services delivered reflected services indicated on the IEPs.

A forensic audit is underway to determine if expense reimbursements were consistent with services delivered, but the auditors are not expected to determine whether delivered services were in-line with the IEPs, according to Jon Zagrodzky, audit committee chairman for the Board of Finance.

Verre remained confident that once his work is done, the district would know what happened to every child receiving special education services in town since problems came to a head in 2012.

“When this is completed, we will be able to say without any question what the facts of the matter have been for individual children over the last three years and where we stand at this point,” Verre told the Board of Education at its June 24 meeting.

The ombudsman spearheaded the creation of six work groups that include residents, parents, school employees and elected officials. Two groups have substantially completed their work — one updated the eligibility guidelines for extended school year services, and another, more recently, finished developing a transition protocol for children entering kindergarten through the early learning program, or ELP.

Five parents of children in ELP sent the Board of Education a letter in February, expressing concern about the “categorical placement” of children with disabilities into kindergarten, instead of addressing the needs of individual children, which is required under state and federal law. The work group successfully handled this concern, according to Verre.

“The overwhelming majority of families of those children seem very encouraged and very pleased with the outcome of that work,” he said.

Another work group is developing a district-wide professional development program. Assistant Superintendent Tim Canty is working with Verre to implement a program for next year. A draft professional development program is currently under development, Verre told the board.

“We did a considerable amount of professional development during this year,” he said. Parents have consistently pointed out the lack of money available to train teachers on new methods, and have also lamented the school board’s choice to cut funds set aside for this purpose during the budget process.

Creation of a professional development program specifically for special education staff is slated to begin in August, Verre said.

A fourth group is developing special education procedures to be incorporated into what Verre calls a “guidelines for practice” manual. A draft has been submitted to the state Department of Education for approval, and the district is currently waiting for the state’s input. Verre said he would like to have the manual finalized before the start of the school year in August.

Once the manual is complete, an electronic copy will be available on the district’s website, Verre said, and it will be searchable to enable easier reading.

A fifth group is looking at data management systems, although Verre emphasized the difficult task at hand for this group.

“It is clear to us that the work of a group of people working on data management systems is going to have to go into next year,” he said.

Data problems have plagued the district since it was uncovered in 2013 that the district has not kept sufficient data to track student progress, nor did it have its own records retention system. Mike Feeney, the schools’ finance director, has been tasked with implementing new data systems through a program called easyTRACK, which will manage caseloads, track services, and link those data to excess cost filings.

The excess cost filings are expenses that Darien incurs related to costs to educate a child with a disability that exceeds 4.5 times the per-pupil cost in the district. These numbers are currently being audited to determine if Darien’s submissions were accurate or possibly fraudulent.

Another work group to determine parent and community engagement was slated to begin work in May, but as of the June 24 meeting, nobody has been named to that group. School board member Michael Harman asked for Verre for information on this group.

Verre said that a “proposed makeup” of that group will be set up by the end of June.

“Once we decide what the makeup will be, we will invite people to serve on that group and get work done over the summer,” he said.

The district fell into hot water several times over the last year and a half because of a lack of parent involvement. The two investigations found that the district and the school board often shut out parents from the decision-making process involving their children.

Additionally, at a Special Education Subcommittee meeting earlier this year, school board Vice Chairman Heather Shea drew ire when she told parents attending a meeting that they couldn’t speak at the meeting. The meeting was held to discuss how to better involve parents and improve communication, an irony pointed out by four parents in an earlier letter to The Darien Times.

Despite reportedly tremendous efforts to improve the district’s special education program, new problems surfaced recently involving a schedule discrepancy in which children with disabilities might have lost services. In responding to a survey, teachers indicated that the schedule problem was a “nightmare,” and that children often lost services they were legally entitled to.

However, before the survey results were reported in The Times, Christa McNamara asked Verre whether or not this scheduling problem negatively affected the delivery of services. Verre first indicated he was unaware of any problems before later confirming there were none.

“I just want to clarify just for the record that we have no belief that there were any issues with the delivery of services despite the two different schedules,” McNamara said.

“I’m not aware of any issues with the delivery of special education services,” Verre replied. “I can’t comment on other things I might not know of.”

McNamara attempted further clarification.

“As far as the delivery of special education services… there were no changes in the delivery of services as indicated in the IEPs,” she asked.

Verre affirmed that was the case.

“OK. Just want to, for the record, make sure,” she said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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