“I accept full responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in today, and ultimately, as the superintendent and the head of the organization, the buck does stop with me.”
So spoke Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Dianne Talarico in response to the report on the District’s Special Education program prepared by independent auditor Lou Barber and Associates.
Special Education Program auditors found that the District was using settlement agreements much more frequently than surrounding districts, and that this approach doesn’t allow individual schools to be as involved in determining the specific needs of each student. The report also made recommendations on how the District could minimize the use of settlement agreements and improve their Special Education Program.
At the April 17 School Board meeting, Talarico stressed that the District should only use settlement agreements “as a last resort when an impasse has been reached in resolving disagreements at the IEP [Individual Education Plan] level and that such an agreement will require approval at the superintendent level.” Currently, the District is continuing the moratorium on such agreements unless legally required or requested by the parents.
The superintendent also emphasized there “is no quick fix or panacea” for the Special Education Program, and that the report stated that correcting the program could take up to eight years. A framework for the process in the Superintendent’s view would incorporate five key areas:
1. Creating a culture of inclusion
2. Increasing collaboration and professional development
3. Having better financial management
4. Modifying Special Education practices
5. Having a regular review of Special Education programs by an external monitor
Some Special Education parents who spoke at the meeting found that the superintendent’s response was inadequate and failed to include some of the key recommendations made by the auditor. Claudia Landis said, “Absent from the response was that information from the settlement agreement be put in the child’s IEP, because not doing so would have devastating consequences.”
Kenneth Hacker noted that the suggestion to have “a parent liaison or ombudsman be appointed to interpret the District process and represent parents to the District” was absent from her action plan. He called the appointment of an external monitor “a severe watering down” of this recommendation.
Amy Brunell said, “Honestly, we could not wait eight years” for improvements to the program because “my son is in 5th grade. Hopefully, he’ll be in college in eight years.”
Santa Monica City Councilmember Robert Holbrook also spoke to the Board about the fact that he had been a Special Education student when he attended District schools and that he was able to get the help he needed. He told the Board that any decisions they make should always involve remembering that the “student comes first.”
District staff will now look into the recommendations made by the Board members at the meeting. No formal action could be taken during the meeting because the item was agendized as a discussion item.