There are only two things two state representatives, the Board of Education chairman and schools superintendent appear to agree with one another regarding a complaint the representatives said they filed with the state Department of Education.
They said they are committed to improving special education services and would welcome a state audit of those services.
“We have an issue that needs a resolution," Rep. Chris Lyddy (D-106) said. "There’s going to be some good things that come from an audit.”
Education board chairman Bill Hart said, “We welcome the opportunity for the state to come in and tell us if we are doing the right thing...I’m very concerned that we do the right thing for the kids.”
Lyddy and Rep. DebraLee Hovey (R-112) said they are seeking a formal investigation into the town’s special education services division after receiving many complaints from parents and getting no satisfactory answer from the superintendent or education board chairman.
How matters got to this stage remains a bone of contention, and whether the state Department of Education would intervene and order an audit of special education services also remains in question.
State education department spokesman Tom Murphy said on Friday that once state officials receive a complaint, they first have to weigh the merits of the complaint to determine whether an audit was warranted.
“We do as a matter of course (an audit) in three to four districts a year,” he said, adding the state has a rotation that it goes through to determine which districts it will audit any particular year.
“We don’t have staff to do dozens,” he said.
It was unclear the last time Newtown was audited.
'...You have 20-plus people coming forward saying pretty much the same kind of thing...'
Superintendent of Schools Janet Robinson said Friday that she did not know offhand if Newtown had ever been audited, although the state performs a “paper audit” of all districts on an annual basis to determine that legally required documentation of special education services is being provided to the state.
Hovey and Lyddy said that for the past several months they have fielded many complaints from constituents about the school system, particularly from special education parents about their cases.
Special education in any district is a challenge with many disputes occurring between parents and educators, though the volume of complaints in this case was concerning, according to state representatives.
“Special education is one of the significant challenge of every community, and our state, but when you have 20-plus people coming forward saying pretty much the same kind of things, which have to do with the administration having a chilling effect on the process, minutes of meetings not being indicative of what actually occurred,” Hovey said in listing the reasons why she said she decided to get involved.
Lyddy also said that in his many contacts with constituents, he was told of problems individual parents would encounter regarding special education services in town.
“I’m not in a position as a state legislator to decipher which ones have merit,” Lyddy said. “It was clear we had a problem in Newtown that needed attention.”
Hovey said she had tried to address the issues with Robinson directly, scheduling a March meeting and writing a follow-up letter but she said she did not receive a satisfactory response from Robinson.
“In my mind, I was very professional,” Hovey said. “The superintendent was generally dismissive of my concerns…Several weeks later, I didn’t see anything from her, nothing from the Board of Education. I made the mistake that as the superintendent of schools, if one of your chief elected official comes to you with concerns even if you thought they were unfounded, you would have conveyed them to your board.”
'I take information and I try to solve the problem'
Robinson for her part said she was misled prior going into that March meeting with Hovey about what would be discussed. Robinson said she was told it would be about state legislative matters, and instead it focused specifically on issues with special education services in town.
“She laid into me” about special education issues in the district, Robinson said of Hovey, adding she felt the legislator was lecturing to her. “I endured that.”
Robinson said she agreed problems exist with special education services in town, but she said she was in the course of trying to remedy them. Robinson said she told Hovey of those efforts.
“I told her what I was working on but she’s got to listen,” Robinson said.
For instance, Robinson said she met last year with a group of parents with special education students to hear their concerns, and then brought that feedback to the district’s special education staff.
Parents told her they believed that their voices were not being heard at Planning and Placement Team meetings, which are held when a student has been referred for special education for the first time, and that one school was particularly good at holding those meetings compared to others, Robinson said.
She said that based on that feedback, she arranged for the principal at that school to give a talk to the others about that school’s techniques.
Robinson also said that based on the feedback of some parents who believed there needed to be more public education regarding special education topics, she worked to help bring light to those issues, backing an effort to bring a .
Robinson also said she helped to create a special education advisory board made up of parents and teachers.
“We were doing some things internally,” she said. “We have been doing some things internally.”
Robinson said she believed Hovey was overstepping her boundaries and making assumptions.
“She’s not in a regulatory position…I know of no superintendent who is told what to do by a legislator,” Robinson said. “Just to assume there is guilt on our part, it’s unconscionable.”
Asked why she did not tell the full education board about her meeting with Hovey, Robinson said she believed it was more important to address the issues.
“I take information and I try to solve the problem,” she said, adding that it takes time to resolve the issues that were being raised. “Credit is not given to the fact that we are sensitive to it.”
Robinson said that Hart, the education board chairman, however, was aware of her meeting with Hovey.
Hart said the board had spent time discussing special education, including receiving an update on March 15, prior to Robinson’s meeting with Hovey, from Michael Regan, director of pupil services. Hart also said that parents of special education children have been invited to board meetings.
Hart, who said he has been working informally to gather concerns from parents about special education and where improvements can be made, said he felt “ambushed” by Hovey and Lyddy, meeting with them on Monday, May 16 for what he believed was to be a meeting on state legislative issues when they brought up their concerns regarding special education.
While the representatives said they were considering asking the state to step in, they did not say they would move ahead with it, Hart said, adding he first became aware that had happened late Wednesday when he received a call from John Voket, a reporter with the Newtown Bee, which was the first to report on the formal complaint.
Hart said that Voket said he had a copy of the complaint. Hart said he was at a disadvantage because he did not have a copy of the complaint and only obtained one after contacting Lyddy.
'We need to dig a little deeper'
Lyddy said he and Hovey decided to go through with the formal complaint after the meeting, which he said was “clearly communicated to (Hart) that we were going to be talking about special education,” because they were concerned the issues weren't being addressed to the satisfaction of everyone and they believed having an independent arbiter would be useful.
“We need someone to go in who is unbiased,” Lyddy said. “These people whom I’ve spoken with, they want what’s in the best interest of their children.”
One particular point of contention from that Monday meeting was the use of the word “rationing” services for students, which the representatives said Hart used during their discussions regarding special education.
“The federal law is very specific about the legalities of how to administer special education services and rationing is not one of those,” Hovey said.
Hart said he was taken aback that the representatives quoted his words during what he believed was an off-the-record comment, a comment that he said was misrepresented by the legislators. Hart said he was using the phrase in the context of what parents might perceive when the district determines what services the child is qualified to receive.
“We simply cannot say ‘yes’ to every request that a parent makes,” Hart said.
Lyddy said he believed parents of special education students have tried to reach out to the education board but received limited responses. For instance, the Parents Advocating for Children group, which was formed by parents of special education, had invited education board members to attend their meetings to hear more about the grievances, but apparently only one education board member has attended.
“I believe there have been attempts made,” he said.
Robinson, however, has attended PAC meetings.
Lyddy said that he applauds the work Robinson and Hart has done with regards to special education but believes more scrutiny is warranted.
"There are other things that have been brought up to me that suggests we need to dig a little deeper," he said.
Suzanne Lang, who helped form PAC, declined to comment on the matter.
“I believe that the matter is in the hands of the state and don't feel that it is my place to interfere or influence anyone at this time,” she said in an e-mail.