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Hagerty-Ross: More Students Crowd in, Special Ed Costs Rise

Expect more spending related to special education in Darien as well as proposals to deal with school space needs as enrollment increases in Darien Public Schools, says Board of Education Chairperson Elizabeth Hagerty-Ross.

Ross delivered a State of the Town address along with a few other board chairmen on Monday before the Darien Representative Town Meeting.

Here is Hagerty-Ross' State of the Town address, as prepared (minor editing changes have been made here by Patch, without changing words; and subheadings have been added in boldface):

Good Evening, Madame Moderator, members of the RTM, fellow elected officials and the Town of Darien. On behalf of my colleagues on the Darien Board of Education (BOE), I would like to review events of the past year and provide insight into plans for the upcoming year.

Controversy and reform of Darien special education

In March of 2013, a courageous group of parents filed a complaint with the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) alleging that the school district systemically violated parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).

As the state moved forward with its investigation, new allegations were brought forward by the same parent group. In late April, at the behest of the Board of Education, district administration hired Teresa DeFrancis, a well-regarded former CSDE educational consultant and attorney to develop new training materials and conduct training with staff and parents.

In early June, after a State fact-finding visit to Darien, the CSDE notified the District that they would be expanding the scope of their investigation to include allegations of unilateral changes to children’s Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

Given the nature and scope of these new allegations, on June 25, the Board of Education approved an unprecedented resolution to hire an independent investigator and an experienced person to oversee special education, both would report to the Board of Education to ensure that the special education needs of Darien’s children were met in accordance with the law.

Attorney Sue Gamm was hired in July to conduct the comprehensive review of the special education concerns during the 2012-13 school year.

In addition, on Oct. 15, 2013 the Board hired Mr. John Verre, an experienced educator to oversee special education during the 2013-14 school year.

On July 18, the CSDE issued its first report of findings of non-compliance and inconsistencies with state and federal law in the Darien special education training materials and guidance documents.

Throughout July and August, at the request of the Board of Education, the district administration developed and implemented alternative options, other than the formal Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings, for special education parents to less formally address concerns about their child’s Individual Education plans.

On Sept. 25, the CSDE issued their second report detailing additional findings of violations of IDEA.

On Nov. 4, Attorney Gamm presented to the community of Darien, the Board of Education and to the district administration and school staff, her findings of the independent investigation. She confirmed the state findings of violations and elaborated with additional details and recommendations. Attorney Gamm’s full report is expected in the next few weeks.

There are many lessons to be learned from the past year. The Board of Education and new staff have taken many steps to strengthen our district and improve the education and communication system in Darien Public schools. Attorney DeFrancis will continue to help re-train our school staff and parents regarding special education.

As an additional option for parents, the board contracted with Attorney Mary Gelfman to act as a facilitator for Planning and Placement Team meetings. Our Special Education Ombudsman, Mr. John Verre, has started to build bridges with our parents, including acting as liaison to the new Special Education Parent Advisory Council.

Interim superintendent Lynne Pierson

On Nov. 12, the Board appointed Dr. Lynne Pierson as the Interim Superintendent for the Darien Public Schools. Dr. Pierson was selected to lead the district based on her 40 years of educational experience and her tremendous knowledge and expertise in special education.

Tomorrow evening, Dr. Pierson and Mr. Verre will present to the Board the action plan for responding to the Gamm report. The Board anticipates returning to this body to give updates, both structural and financial, as the action plan is implemented and critical areas of our educational system are reconstructed.

The Board and the school district face other challenges in the upcoming year.

Enrollment and building space

The official Oct. 1, 2013 district enrollment, including the ELP Pre-Kindergarten program, was 4,895 students, an increase of 49 students.

For 2014-15, the current projection is 4,923 students, or an increase of 28.

However, total enrollment does not tell the whole story. Elementary classroom capacity is now an issue with the number of sections at our elementary schools slowly increasing to the current level of 118.

The Board initially moved forward with the Town to evaluate additions to both Royle and Tokeneke to alleviate the stress on our facilities and to consolidate our ELP program under one roof. The Royle and Tokeneke Building Committee was formed.

Initial estimates for the cost of the two construction projects came in significantly higher than anticipated. The building committee and the board evaluated the projects and have asked Dr. Pierson to review our enrollment projections and classroom needs for the next year to determine if there are more cost effective solutions for our elementary school facilities.

At Middlesex Middle School (MMS), the administration is charged with evaluating the instructional and facility needs with the intent of establish a long-term strategy to maximize learning for our middle school students.

Darien High School is again facing conversion of locker pods to classroom space as enrollment moves closer to the maximum building capacity of 1,400 students. The Board expects enrollment will continue to be a concern over the next several years.

Common Core and staff evaluation

The Board is currently monitoring implementation of curriculum and instructional methodology to align with the Common Core State Standards and preparing our students to shift from the CMT/CAPT testing to the Smarter Balanced Assessments this spring.

The administration is implementing new Teacher and Administrator Evaluation and Professional Development Plans as required by the Connecticut State Department of Education.

Improvements to sports facilities

The Board and the administration have worked closely with the Darien Athletic Foundation [DAF], who has generously donated a state of the art scoreboard to the Darien High School stadium field and is finalizing approval of a ticket booth/concession stand at the entrance to the high school stadium.

This project may come before the RTM as early as your January meeting. Their third project entails turfing three grass fields at Darien High School including the field adjacent to the tennis courts, the grass field in the front oval, and the field behind the varsity baseball field.

The Board has given DAF permission to proceed through the regulatory bodies of the Town and return to the Board when the necessary approvals are received. The Board would like to thank the DAF for their patience with the process and for their generosity to our student athletes.

Superintendent search, labor union negotiations and spending

The Board has begun the search for a new Superintendent; additional information will be presented at tomorrow’s BOE meeting. As with previous superintendent searches, it is essential to have our parents and community members input as the Board moves forward with the most important decision for our Town and the Board of Education.

The Board’s negotiations committee has also been very busy working with the Administrators’ union. Negotiations with the teachers’ union will begin this summer.

On the financial side, the Board continues to monitor the additional expenses related to attorney, consultant, and FOI costs. The Board is also monitoring possible changes to Individual Education plans, which may result in additional staffing needs. At present, the Board is projecting a $600,000 deficit for this school year.

Thanks

On behalf of the Board of Education, we would like to thank and acknowledge a number of people:

The Board extends a special thanks to all our parents, volunteers, and donors who contribute so much to our children and their schools.

We would like to thank our community of Darien, the RTM and Town officials as a whole for your support as we move through this difficult and tumultuous time.

The Board would like to thank the staff at our schools. We have all been through a challenging time and they are on the front line. We entrust our children to them every day and we need to acknowledge the outstanding job they are doing in educating the young minds of Darien.

The Board would like to acknowledge Mrs. Susie Perticone, Mr. Jim Plutte, and Mrs. Clara Sartori for their many years of volunteer service in the community of Darien. We wish them the best in their future endeavors.

Personally, I would like to thank my fellow Board members: Vice Chair, Mrs. Heather Shea, Secretary, Mr. Michael Harman, Mrs. Sarah Schneider-Zuro, Mrs. Katie Stein, and Mr. Morgan Whittier and to welcome our three new board members Mr. Dave Martens, Mrs. Christa McNamara, and Mrs. Callie Sullivan.

It is a privilege to work with this group of volunteers. This Board faced unique and unprecedented challenges during the last year, but continues to have the well being and education of Darien’s children at the forefront of every decision we make.

'To the parents of all Darien Public School children'

To the parents of all Darien Public School children: the Board of Education and the new administrative team is determined to move our district forward in a direction of healing.

All children will benefit from the thorough review and implementation of best practices as we examine and rebuild our educational system. The expectations of our parents and community are in line with your Board of Education expectations. Our schools exist for our children and it is time for them to be operating as the excellent school system that we all expect them to be.

Finally, on behalf of the Darien Board of Education, we wish you and your families a joyous holiday season, and a healthy and prosperous New Year.



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