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Monday, April 23 Local

BOF will financially support BOE special ed finances

Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao is willing to financially support the Board of Education while it fixes the special education department, but doesn't think everyone in the central office is up to task.

"The message that we would like to send to you is that this is the time to really rethink the organization and the people that you have in this 35 Leroy building," Mao said at the Jan. 22 Board of Education meeting. "To sum it up in my words, you need to step up the game here."

Mao said the central office needs permanent administrators who have the talent to manage a budget, file reports and implement state and Darien policies.

"And what we've seen, just by our own window into special education, is that you don't really have that talent here," Mao said, suggesting that the board consider creating a position similar to a chief administrator or an assistant superintendent of accounting and operations.

Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said the evaluation of personnel in the district is the responsibility of interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson.

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"We have very talented people in our district," Hagerty-Ross said after the meeting. "We need to make sure that talent runs throughout and make sure every one has the professional development they need to make sure that we have the best people in each position."

The procedures and people hired to address the problems within the special education department are projected to cost the district $1 million in gross expenses, according to Hagerty-Ross.

To date, the district has paid more than $431,000 to Shipman & Goodwin, the district's legal counsel; attorney Sue Gamm, who conducted an independent investigation; Duby McDowell Communications, LLC, which has been assisting the district throughout the complaint process; Attorney Theresa DeFrancis, who has been working to revise the district's special education policies and operating manuals; and attorney Mary Gelfman, who has been assisting parents through independent hearings regarding their children's Individualized Education Plans.

Former Director of Special Education and Services Deirdre Osypuk, who resigned Jan. 21, received $90,195 while on paid leave since June 2013. Her resignation was unconditional, according to Pierson, and Osypuk will only receive any unaccrued vacation time.

In November, the Board of Finance met with the Board of Education regarding the hiring of CohnReznick to conduct an independent special audit of the Excess Cost Grant the district receives from the state Department of Education.

The hiring of the auditor follows an alert by Kate Buch, town finance director, and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who were contacted in October by Shipman & Goodwin, the Board of Education's attorneys, about a possible issue with the reporting of reimbursements to the state Department of Education.

Additionally, during the course of Gamm's investigation into the special education department, it was determined that there could be an issue relating to the excess cost grants received from the state. If the cost to educate a special education child is four-and-a-half times more than the cost of a general education student, the town is reimbursed by the state.

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CohnReznick estimated that the cost of the audit would be between $12,000 and $15,000.

However, Jon Zagrodzky, Board of Finance member and Audit Search Committee chairman, said the audit firm contacted the board 10 days after starting its examination in January to say it had found numerous problems with procedures and practices with the grant application.

As a result, the scope of the audit will be three to four times greater than initially discussed and more expensive than the initial $12,000 to $15,000.

"Both Liz (Mao) and I feel the expenditures are justified because in the end, (the audit firm will) be able to justify and we'll be able to justify that (the audit) was done in a complete fashion and the results are complete facts," Zagrodzky said. "We need to make sure that this was done right."

Zagrodzky said he has given CohnReznick the "green light" to proceed with the audit.

The Board of Education is expected to go before the Representative Town Meeting to ask for a special appropriation to cover the shortfall of $725,000, according to Hagerty-Ross. The Board of Education is running a total deficit for the 2013-14 budget of $725,000, according to Hagerty-Ross.

Hagerty-Ross said the board will ask the RTM for the appropriation in late spring, when it will have a firm amount.

Mao said the Board of Finance is committed to helping the Board of Education.

"We recognize that there will be significant funds need to cover the deficit this year," Mao said. " We don't like it but we're prepared to fund it; that's what our reserve fund is for."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews