The proposed special education budget for 2014-15 is projected to increase by $1.59 million, or 9.26 percent, to $18.9 million, the highest increase since the 2011-12 school year when it rose by $2.01 million.
The special education budget represents 23 percent of the proposed $87.65 million superintendent's budget for 2014-15.
John Verre, the special education ombudsman, presented the proposed budget to the Board of Education Monday.
Of the 4,895 students in the Darien school system, 563, or 11.5 percent receive special education, as of Oct. 1, 2013.
Of the 563 students receiving special education services, 10 percent, or 58 students, have been placed out of district. The out-of-district budget for 2014-15 is proposed to increase 21.35 percent from an estimated $4.23 million in 2013-14 to $4.41 million in 2014-15. The final cost of out-of-district tuition is not final until the end of the school year, as students can still be placed out-of-district during the year.
"We will always have a need for out-of-district placement for some kids," Verre said. "But should it be every one out of 10 kids? I don't think so."
According to Verre, 47 percent of the students in out-of-district schools were placed through recommendations made in Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings and with the approval of the parents. The remaining 53 percent of students were taken out of the Darien school system as a result of an agreement between the district and the parents.
Verre said he has spoken to parents of out-of-district students who have expressed a desire to be able to bring their kids back to Darien.
Verre was hired Oct. 15 to serve as the ombudsman after a group of parents filed a complaint in March 2013 with the state claiming that Darien Public Schools violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by removing the "team aspect" of the PPT meetings, at which students' programs and goals for the year are determined. At a later private parent meeting with state representatives, allegations were made that Individual Education Plans were changed after PPTs and services were not being provided. Those allegations were found by the state to be true.
"A review of the student IEPs in this electronic system (IEP Direct) by (Bureau of Special Education) staff confirmed that changes were made after the documents were `finalized,'" according to the report. "While some changes appear to be allowable technical edits, other changes look to be substantive in nature." The report classifies a substantive change as one that alters the content of the IEP, such as goals and objectives, or services provided to the student.
Verre has been responsible for restructuring the department and developing short-, medium- and long-term plans for the district.
Following the filing of the complaint, Director of Special Education and Services Deirdre Osypuk was placed on paid leave on June 17 and she resigned Jan. 21.
Former Superintendent Stephen Falcone resigned Oct. 22 after the board learned that he had received a letter in September 2012 from Julie Bookbinder, a former DPS speech pathologist who left the district at the start of the 2012-13 school year, who revealed her interpretation of chaos in the special education department following the appointment of Osypuk.
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As part of the annual update to the board, Verre presented his proposed plan for restructuring the special education department for the 2014-15 school year. The restructuring would impact all of the special education administrative roles.
Following the resignation of Liz Wesolowski, former assistant director of special education for the secondary schools, the district has opted to not hire a replacement, making Carleen Wood the only assistant director for the 2014-15 school year. Pierson recommended hiring an interim assistant director of special education.
As a result of not replacing Wesolowski, Verre proposes hiring seven school-based special education and student support facilitators who would "provide guidance, support and technical assistance to school communities in the processes and procedures for special education and 504."
The facilitators would act as "master teachers," Verre said, and would be very experienced and well-trained in the field of special education.
In the recent past, building administrators -- either the principal and assistant principal -- were present at all the PPT meetings, which Verre said "should be lauded." The facilitators would chair the PPT meetings and serve as the administrative designee, Verre said.
However, the building assistant principal or principal still can be present at the meetings if the parent chooses, or depending on the student's case.
"Nothing would preclude the assistant principal or principal from a PPT where needed and appropriate," Verre said.
The facilitators would cost $423,275 in the proposed 2014-15 budget, according to Verre -- $412,275 in salaries and $21,000 in stipends.
Board member Crista McNamara asked if one facilitator per school would be enough to handle the different number of children who receive special education.
"We'll start with the concept of one per school," Verre said. "This may take more revision."
Jack Davis, a Representative Town Meeting member of the Finance and Budget committee, asked the board if it had considered the "nuts and bolts" of adding the facilitators, asking if there was enough space in the schools for another office, considering the increasing enrollment and need for building projects.
Much of the restructuring of positions impacts already-existing roles in the district, such as students' case managers -- who are responsible for the implementation of the IEPs during the school year -- to facilitate the annual review PPT.
Verre said work still is being done to determine how a shift in roles as a result of the restructuring will take place.
Additionally, the assistant director of special education would be responsible for students in kindergarten through grade 12, while the assistant principal of early childhood special education and student support would be responsible for students from birth to kindergarten. The assistant principal role was previously responsible for the Early Learning Program but now would be responsible for the development and implementation of the ELP-to-kindergarten transition under his plan.
Arbitration between the Darien Administrators Association and the Board of Education ended on Saturday. The union is requesting a 2 percent increase in the salaries of the 24 administrators in the union, however, the town officials do not feel the raise is appropriate.
Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao told the arbitrators Saturday that her board and the Representative Town Meeting likely would vote down the raise.
"I think it's just indefensible while we're in the middle of trying to solve all the problems," Mao said. "Administrators have a chance of getting a better salary once we're through this."
"To be fair," Mao added, she does not believe all administrators should be responsible for the problems that arose out of the special education department during the 2012-13 school year. Ox Ridge School principal and member of the union negotiating team Luke Forshaw said that while working with Osypuk in the 2012-13 school year, he did not believe anything illegal took place within special education. The Therapeutic Learning Center is housed at Ox Ridge, Forshaw said, so he had more interactions with Osypuk than other elementary school principals. The TLC program works with special education students with the most complex needs.
"At no time when she gave me guidance did I think, `That's not right, that's something that's harming kids or parents,'" Forshaw said. "Nothing she answered was unethical."
Forshaw said there were times that he had difficult questions to ask Osypuk but that she would consult with legal counsel to determine the correct answer.
"I didn't have a sense it was problematic but I learned eventually that it was," Forshaw said.
Wood told the arbitrators that she had informed Falcone multiple times that she was uncomfortable with the changes Osypuk was making within the department.
Wood was unsure if Falcone had acted on her concerns and said she didn't consider following up with the Board of Education members to see if anything had been done regarding what she considered errors on Osypuk's part. Wood's concerns with Osypuk formed as soon as Osypuk started working in the district on July 1, 2012, Wood said. Those concerns continued for 11 months until Osypuk was place on paid administrative leave.
A decision regarding the contracts is expected to be reached in mid-February, according to Susan Meredith, the neutral arbitrator.