March 5, 2024 Breaking News, Latest News, and Videos

Gag Order Controversy Prompts Special Education Study Sessions:

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Board of Education has decided to address the issues raised about confidential Special Education settlement agreements by scheduling Board study sessions on how Special Education services are delivered.

Members of the community brought the issue to the attention of the City Council on May 24, during the Council’s budget study session for the next fiscal year. People explained that “gag orders” are routinely signed by Special Education parents in order to secure services for their children. Such agreements preclude the community from access to the financial records, and there is also no accounting as to the actual cost of these services. These agreements therefore, in the view of many in the community, can impact the District from operating in a transparent and accountable manner.

The City Council reacted to the gag order situation by requiring $530,000 of the City’s proposed $750,000 annual increase to the District be held in reserve until the issues are resolved. During discussion on the issue, many Councilmembers expressed discomfort about a lack of knowledge regarding how the District, and particularly the Special Education department, operates.

At the June 7 Board of Education meeting, Board members decided it was important to include members of both the City Council and the District’s Special Education District Advisory Committee in the Special Education study sessions, along with members of the community. Board President Kathy Wisnicki summed up the Board support for the study sessions. “It’s a complex, multifaceted issue, and there are the educational issues that are at the forefront. There are the financial implications, the legal issues…the ever-changing laws that affect Special Education…and the state and federal laws that are unfunded mandates,” said Wisnicki.

Superintendent Dianne Talarico explained that the District had also prepared a memorandum to the City Council to respond to their concerns. She also pointed out the “importance of all parties recognizing the importance of increased funding in maintaining exemplary quality instructional programming in our District.”

The Board also expressed their support for the District’s Financial Oversight Committee’s recommendation made earlier in the meeting that they “initiate a process for an independent third party to review the financial objectives you [the Board] set for yourself to slow the rate of growth of Special Education funding by internalizing services.”

In other business, the Board decided on how to fill the Board position that will be opening up because Board member Emily Bloomfield is moving outside the District. Her last meeting will be on June 28, so by law the Board must appoint a new Board member within 60 days. The Board will have all prospective candidates fill out both an application and a questionnaire, and then interview all eligible candidates at a public meeting.

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