Another one bites the dust: Special ed admin resigns

Another special education administrator who was employed during the year Darien broken state and federal special education law has left town to take a similar job in Greenwich.

Carleen Wood, a 1984 graduate of Darien High School, has worked in town since 2007 as the assistant director for secondary special education. While Wood held this position, the district was found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by creating a program designed to restrict, reduce and remove educational services to children with disabilities to save money, according to a two-part state investigation and a $196,000 independent probe.

No employees have been terminated or faced any penalties as a result of the findings. It also remains unclear how many children may have been harmed as a result of the illegal program, despite an ongoing effort to determine this number.

At an arbitration hearing earlier this year, Wood said that she wants to stay in Darien and help restore the trust of the community and “be part of moving forward.” The hearing was to determine if administrators would be given a 2% raise after the previous year’s problems. In late February, the panel voted against the raise. By April, Wood had requested letters of recommendation, and by May, she had sent her letter to Greenwich, inquiring about an open position.

She has been hired as the special education coordinator in Greenwich, reporting to Assistant Superintendent Mary Forde. In her employment application obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Wood notes that she’s leaving because of an “opportunity for change.” She took a $2,000 pay cut to work in Greenwich, where she now earns $147,197 annually.

Despite her presence during the troubled year, Wood’s name came up infrequently by parents and investigators during the 2013 inquiry that uncovered the problems. At the arbitration hearing, she claimed that she brought concerns about program changes to then-Superintendent Steve Falcone in September 2012. These changes happened under the new director, Deirdre Osypuk, who was placed on paid leave for eight months before resigning amid the investigation’s findings that implicated she played a leading role in the district’s illegal program.

Wood said she didn’t know what Falcone would do with the information she gave him, adding that she didn’t think going to the Board of Education directly would be appropriate, given the union rules that outline complaint procedures.

“I had no knowledge of what the superintendent was and was not doing,” Wood told the arbitration panel. “I assumed when given information like this, that something proactive would be done.”

Problems only worsened, the investigations found. Another former special education employee, speech and language pathologist Julie Bookbinder, abruptly resigned before the 2012-13 school year began, shortly after Osypuk took over. Soon after leaving, she wrote Falcone an eight-page letter condemning Osypuk’s hiring and claiming the district was in “turmoil,” and staff were afraid to speak up.

A year later, Falcone resigned. While his departure appeared voluntary, the Board of Education chairman, Betsy Hagerty-Ross, announced his resignation along with information that Falcone had not shared Bookbinder’s letter with the board, and cited that as the reason for “accepting” his resignation. Falcone was soon hired as Stamford’s human resources director, where he remains today.

One of the problems uncovered by investigators was that the district was not completing children’s individualized education plans, or IEPs, in a timely manner. Parents would sometimes wait months or longer before knowing what services their children were receiving, when state law requires the IEP be completed within five days of a team meeting. Even after being notified, parents said the IEPs would not reflect the team’s decision, and services often only existed on paper and were never delivered. It was alleged that Osypuk told them these problems were due to “clerical errors.”

Wood told the arbitration panel that she asked Osypuk about why some of the IEPs were not being done in a timely manner. However, in an 18-page letter to interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson, Osypuk claimed that Wood was responsible for 60% of the late IEPs that were uncovered in the investigations. This amounts to 102 out of 169 IEPs that were found to have been delivered after the five-day deadline.

“Of the 269 IEPs she was responsible for finalizing, this administrator was late on 38% of them,” Osypuk wrote, alluding to Wood.

Wood cited two current Darien employees, Debi Boccanfuso and Laura Straiton, and a former special education director, Robin Pavia, as references. Pavia claimed that the problems were the result of former assistant superintendent Judith Pandolfo, who had taken responsibilities away from Pavia in an effort to gain control of the program. Pandolfo retired early this year after the district eliminated an assistant superintendent position, giving the only available slot to Tim Canty, who had only been working for a year in Darien.

Osypuk claimed that Pavia led a program that catered to a select group of parents who used high-priced lawyers to gain excessive services for their children, and that she was hired to get expenses “under control.” She also claimed that legal fees went down while she was director, a statement that was not supported by legal bills, which show fees increased under Osypuk. Parents said this happened because they feared the frugal direction being taken by the district and sought private placement for their children.

During the special education crisis, Darien handled more requests for mediation in one year than it had in the previous two years combined, records show. The year before Osypuk came to Darien, there were 41 children placed out of district. By Oct. 1, 2013, only six months after parents filed a complaint alleging violations of federal special education law, that number increased to 58, the highest in at least four years.

Wood is the eighth top-level administrator to resign or retire amid the special education problems. Antoinette Fornshell, formerly a literacy coordinator in Darien, resigned soon after the state’s investigation completed last year to also work in Greenwich.

Boccanfuso, principal at Middlesex Middle School, wrote that Wood is a problem solver who puts children first.

“She has true strength in dealing with the facts, sharing concerns, then problem solving to a point where all members of the discussion feel heard and realize that a productive outcome is the goal,” wrote Boccanfuso, who shared president duties of the administrators union with Wood last year.

“Carleen objectively looks at what students need in the classroom and is often the first one to roll up her sleeves and offer her help and support in every way possible so that every child benefits…” Boccanfuso continued.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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