State tosses Greenwich special education complaint

GREENWICH — A complaint filed by a group of Greenwich special education parents alleging impropriety on the special education department of Greenwich Public Schools was dismissed by the state commissioner of education.

In a letter to the parents’ attorney, Mystic-based Andrew Feinstein, Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona cited a lack of evidence for the complaint. He suggested the alleged violations did not prove systemic procedures or practices and that it did not show that the “Board of Education has failed or is unable to make reasonable provision to implement the educational interests of the state.”

“I certainly appreciate that Commissioner Cardona recognizes that the board is directionally correct in proceeding with an independent audit of our special education program, which will result in an appropriate action plan and improvement in the delivery of services,” Greenwich Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein said Friday.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint was filed Oct. 28 and co-signed by three parents — Jennifer Kutai, Caroline Lerum and Audra O’Donovan, all of whom have recently been outspoken in their criticism of the district’s Pupil Personnel Services Department, which oversees special education in Greenwich.

“We are disappointed but we are not disheartened,” the parents said in a joint statement Friday after the case was dismissed. “Parents have been advocating for change in this district for the past 18 months, and we will not stop until we are confident that his district is acting in the best interest of all its children. We implore the Greenwich Board of Education to do the same and uphold their bylaws to deliver an excellent education to all students and transform the community’s needs and aspirations into policies.”

In their filing to the state, the co-signers alleged the district and school board were not providing federally mandated services as outlined in students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), were not providing special education programs in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and have denied a suitable program of educational experiences for many years, despite numerous reviews of services provided.

In October, the Board of Education received a report on aspects of special education delivery compiled by Tennessee-based firm Key2Ed, which highlight some serious issues in the district, especially around IEP implementation, proper staffing and communication. The district also recently contracted Public Consulting Group, a Boston-based educational firm, to conduct an in-depth audit of the department, which is ongoing.

‘Where do we take it?’

The ruling is setback for the parents, who have spoken often at Board of Education and Board of Estimate and Taxation meetings in the last year. Even still, Feinstein, the group’s attorney, said he somewhat expected the state’s ruling.

“Their dismissal doesn’t surprise me because the state will do anything possible not to go after a school district,” Feinstein said Friday. “I sort of expected that that’s the position they would take.”

What Feinstein said he found surprising was what he considered the flimsiness of the state’s argument.

Whereas Cardona said the district had not “refused to take final action,” Feinstein said the years of studies, as described in the complaint, which produced little meaningful change, are clear evidence of the inaction of both the board and the district.

That history of inaction, Feinstein said, is all the more cause for increased attention on the ongoing PCG review.

“I think a lot of pressure has to be put on this auditing firm by parents,” Feinstein said. “And the real concern is, it looks like the board sees this as kind of their own whitewash and that they aren’t particularly interested in correcting the type of problems which have been endemic in Greenwich for a long time.”

Carol Sutton, president of the Greenwich Education Association, the union representing district teachers, said she remains optimistic about the PCG audit and said Jones is in a position to bring meaningful change to the district. But like Feinstein, she said the dismissal of the complaint only increases the importance of the review.

“That just underscores the review that’s going on right now,” Sutton said. “There’s a lot at stake in the present special education review and we’ll see what happens, cus that’s always the question: Is anything going to be different this time?”

The dismissal comes on the heels of the removal of Lerum, one of the co-signers, from a superintendent-appointed steering committee tasked with overseeing the PCG audit. In a Nov. 4 email, Greenwich Town Attorney Abby Wadler notified Feinstein that Lerum’s membership on the committee had ended, citing a conflict of interest and suggesting that Lerum could gain personally from the complaint as a member of the advisory group.

Lerum was replaced by another parent, Jenni Reynolds, and will maintain her role as co-founder of the Greenwich Special Education Advisory Council. And though, according to Feinstein, there was little recourse for his clients to continue to pursue the complaint at the state level currently, he said he expected them to stay active as advocates in the district.

“I do not think that the state’s rejection of the complaint is going to leave them to tuck their tails and go away,” Feinstein said. “I think I can say that with a fair bit of confidence. The question is, what’s the next step, where do we take it?”

[email protected]; @justinjpapp1; 203-842-2586

Source Article