Embattled ex-employee hired in Massachusetts

The woman who took the heat for Darien’s special education debacle was hired as a top administrator in a Massachusetts school district, and she got help getting this job from a Darien employee who is currently on paid leave.

Deirdre Osypuk is now the director of student support services in the Quaboag Regional School District in Warren, Massachusetts, a town in the central part of the state that is 97% white and mostly working class, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Quaboag’s superintendent, Brett Kustigian, remained confident that Osypuk was the right choice for his district, despite implications that Osypuk led Darien’s illegal campaign to reduce, restrict and remove educational services to children with disabilities and stifle parent involvement.

“I am confident that [we] hired the best person…” he told The Darien Times in an emailed statement, adding that he has found Osypuk to be “competent, personable and student centered.”

Osypuk’s role in Darien’s problems was highlighted in documents she created that were leaked to parents by concerned school employees who said that Osypuk was issuing illegal directives to staff. When she resigned after being on paid leave for six months, Osypuk claimed that the documents had been taken out of context, and that some of them were drafts or were never implemented.

As the problems unfolded, past special education troubles began to surface, as allegations that a select group of parents had used lawyers to bully the school district into getting unnecessary services for their children. Osypuk claimed she was hired to fix this culture, but that parents lashed out, and the district reverted to the ways of favoritism.

However, under Osypuk’s leadership, Darien was found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in at least 32 instances, according to attorney Sue Gamm’s $196,000 investigation. The state Department of Education also found copious evidence of illegal activity. It remains unclear if children suffered as a result of these violations, though many more parents have been taking their children out of public school than in prior years.

In her application to Quaboag, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Osypuk wrote that she left Darien for “personal reasons.”

At least one person in Darien supported Osypuk’s attempts to find work elsewhere. Judith Pandolfo, Osypuk’s supervisor and the former assistant superintendent of elementary education, wrote a letter of recommendation for Osypuk, records show. Pandolfo’s position was eliminated as a result of district restructuring, although some have said this was done as a passive way to remove Pandolfo, since she had been named as a driving force behind the problems. As a tenured administrator, firing her would have run into legal walls.

Osypuk “established a clear goal for the department: to implement effective and efficient programming in order to promote high levels of student achievement and independence within the requirements of the IDEA,” Pandolfo wrote, referencing the federal law.

But even Osypuk didn’t fully agree with this assessment. In a December letter she wrote to interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson, Osypuk admitted to not knowing some parts of the IDEA.

“I own some misunderstandings of the law…” she stated. Yet in her application to Quaboag, she notes that she “maintain[ed] compliance with IDEA…”

Pandolfo penned her reference letter in June of 2013. This was during the same time that more than 100 parents came to a state education department meeting, sharing stories that some described as “gut-wrenching.” Parents said that reading specialists were removed from helping illiterate children, services were taken away from 3-year-olds and an aide was removed from helping a child in a wheelchair. Osypuk was placed on paid leave soon after these stories were shared, and it appears that Pandolfo also wrote her letter of recommendation during this time.

Pandolfo made a deal with the district to retire early this year. She gets paid through December and then is on unpaid leave for six months in 2015 before she retires completely.

Osypuk was hired to start the 2012-13 school year. Her budget decreased by nearly half a percent, the first decrease in special education spending in at least a decade. She claimed it was due to finding efficiencies in spending that did not negatively impact student’s services.

The investigation found that the changes did impact student services. Notably, a dramatic drop in the number of kids receiving services happened under Osypuk, while the number of requests for mediation increased, along with legal expenses. To this day, ombudsman John Verre is still identifying the students whose education plans were impacted under Osypuk’s leadership.

Other problems

Robin Pavia, Darien’s special education director prior to Osypuk, claimed that Pandolfo drove the changes that Osypuk later implemented. As the situation became heated and Pandolfo’s name came into the mix, former Superintendent Steve Falcone appeared to attempt to protect Pandolfo by claiming that Osypuk reported to him and not Pandolfo.

This purported chain of command confused many, because for years the special education director reported to Pandolfo, not Falcone. In Osypuk’s application to Quaboag, both she and Pandolfo contradicted Falcone’s claim.

Falcone was later hired as Stamford Schools’ human resources director. His parents both worked in Stamford Schools, and Pavia’s brother, Michael, was mayor of Stamford at the time he was hired.

Pandolfo admitted that the special education department “was not functioning effectively” under Pavia, and that Osypuk had the support of the administrators to fix things.

The “administrative team believed in her ability to bring consistent, productive programming to our students in line with legal requirements and fiscal responsibility,” Pandolfo wrote.

However, Carleen Wood, a former assistant special education director, claims that she came to Falcone soon after Osypuk was hired to inform him of problems taking place. Additionally, a respected speech and language pathologist, Julie Bookbinder, abruptly resigned and wrote Falcone a scathing eight-page letter wherein she described a district in “turmoil” under Osypuk.

As more problems surfaced, parents and this newspaper began to uncover what appeared to be a concerted effort by some residents and elected officials to rein in special education spending, despite clear legal guidelines that only allow the Board of Education to make education-related fiscal decisions. Even as these laws remain clear, many remain vocal about the town’s inability to contain special education costs. They have often pointed to Freedom of Information Act requests issued by this newspaper and others as contributing to inflated spending, despite these requests being responsible for uncovering most of these problems.

Audit

The district is also currently the subject of a forensic audit to determine if the schools, under Osypuk’s leadership, fraudulently applied for reimbursements to pay for special education services it never provided. Attorney Gamm found that employees who had resigned were listed as having provided services to students, despite being off the payroll. She also found that a single full-time aide was listed on several children’s education plans, making it appear that five people were hired when it was only one. This would make the district eligible for more money.

Parents also said that forms were used that pushed children’s expenses over the threshold to receive reimbursements, a practice that ensured Darien would get money back, even if that meant initially spending more. While the logic behind this practice might be difficult to grasp, some have speculated that it was done to show Darien was more efficient than its peers at getting money back from the state. It’s unclear if this money was used for services or went somewhere else.

Audit problems did not begin with the 2012-13 school year, records show. The state Department of Education issued a notice to the district after the 2010-11 school year, claiming that reports for reimbursements were inaccurate. It remains unclear if the auditors, CohnReznick, will go back to audit further years.

Jon Zagrodzky, Board of Finance member and chairman of the committee overseeing the audit, has said that most of these problems were the result of sloppy accounting, and that, preliminarily, there didn’t seem to be any evidence of fraud.

Some have expressed concern about the integrity of the audit, given that many residents in town could have high-level connections to CohnReznick, and there could be pressure for the firm to ignore problems that could further harm the town’s reputation. More than a third of Darien residents work in the financial sector, according to the U.S. Census. CohnReznick has not responded to requests for comment. Zagrodzky fully supported the audit’s integrity.

“My personal reputation is on the line,” he told The Darien Times. “I have no intention of hiding this stuff from anyone.”

The audit, however, is not determining whether expenses meshed with services as outlined on education plans. Parents have said this would render the audit useless, as it would not determine if services were provided.

If services were not provided, and the district applied for reimbursements, it would open up many questions about where, or who, that money went to. The audit is not intended to unravel this mystery.

Former finance director Dick Huot oversaw the numbers being audited. He disconnected his telephone number and has been unreachable for several months.

Problems with the numbers surfaced last October, soon after Falcone resigned as superintendent. The Board of Finance noted the need to get to the bottom of this problem in haste. However, Zagrodzky said that he expects a formal presentation of the audit’s findings won’t be made until late September, nearly a year after Gamm uncovered flaws in the reimbursement forms.

Quaboag

Ellen Chambers, founder of SPEDWatch, a group that advocates for special education rights in the Bay State, expressed outrage that Osypuk was hired.

“How on earth can the Quaboag School Committee justify hiring Osypuk after what she did in Darien? It’s unconscionable,” Chambers wrote in an email. “Either they didn’t properly vet her, or, worse yet, they did but hired her anyway. Quaboag parents shouldn’t stand for this. I hope they’ll take action to protect their children’s special education rights.”

Quaboag enrolled 1,382 children during the 2013-14 school year with a budget of $15.9 million, although its spending has decreased two of the last four years.

Osypuk could have also gotten a job in Connecticut. Kelly Donnelly, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that Osypuk remained licensed and certified to be an administrator in this state, despite allegations that she led the illegal program and that she violated  parents’ and students’ privacy rights when she resigned by discussing details of cases and revealing students’ initials, which could have been identifiable.

Quaboag did not have information on its website regarding an announcement of Osypuk’s hire. There was, however, a survey on the left side of its homepage for parents to provide input about qualities they would like to see in the position held by Osypuk. Soon after The Darien Times filed its FOIA request for information on Osypuk’s hiring, the survey was removed from the website.

Kustigian, Quaboag’s superintendent, maintained that Osypuk was the best candidate out of 16 applicants, and discussed how two parents served on the nine-member search committee that unanimously recommended her. It’s unclear if those parents have children with disabilities.

Osypuk was also supported with reference letters by David Title, superintendent of Fairfield Public Schools, and Beth Goldsnider, special education director of Bolton Public Schools. Neither responded to a request for comment.

Interim superintendent Pierson and Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Darien’s Board of Ed chairman, declined to comment. Tom Mooney, Darien Schools’ lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment to determine if Darien’s lawyers assisted Osypuk’s efforts to get a job in Massachusetts.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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