Special education parents ask for ‘impartial’ task force facilitator

As the San Dieguito Union School District is in the process of forming a special education task force to help improve the outcomes of students with disabilities and develop a strategic plan, several parents spoke out against staff’s choice for a group facilitator at the Sept. 14 board meeting. After listening to public comment from parents, the board agreed to find more candidates for the facilitator.

SDUHSD Associate Superintendent Mark Miller had recommended the facilitator and was concerned that not moving forward with his selection would delay the process — the first task force meeting was scheduled for Oct. 11 as they work toward recommendations for the 2018-19 school year.

“If the process was delayed a month but if they knew that it was a real partnership, I think parents would be OK with that,” SDUHSD board trustee Mo Muir said. “I want this to work. We want their buy-in. We want them to on board with this and to start in good faith.”

Since August, Miller said that he has worked to form an inclusive task force representing various viewpoints to come up with the best strategic plan to serve special education students.

“Staff has been working diligently to get the task force up and running, taking into consideration feedback,” Miller said. “It became extremely clear that due to distrust of district staff, that there needs to be an independent person to lead this process.”

His recommendation for the independent facilitator is a recently-retired, “highly respected” Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) director in Orange County. She was an assistant superintendent overseeing special education and student services who also oversaw the transformation of an Adult Transition Program in Garden Grove.

The parents argued that the facilitator will only work if he or she is impartial. The parents said that as the selected facilitator had worked previously with Miller and as a special education administrator, she could not be impartial.

“I wonder whether the end product in this new model for special education has already been decided and that the task force is really going to be just providing cover for the final report,” parent Janet Schenker said. “This is how you’re being perceived.”

Schenker said the composition of the task force is “lopsided” with just five parents and 17 district representatives and with the selected facilitator having an administrative background, “it appears to some parents that you’re stacking the deck.”

“All we’re saying is pick somebody impartial who hasn’t been involved in administration,” said parent Ellen Montanari. “They don’t have to have experience working within schools at all. A good facilitator just makes sure everyone is heard. That’s it.”

Miller clarified that he has only worked with the suggested facilitator in committee meetings, she was never a colleague. He also said he was only directed to form the task force, he said it was not the direction of the board to involve parent input in the facilitator selection.

In response to parents saying that there was too much staff and not enough parents on the task force, SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill noted that the task force meetings will be open meetings and there will be opportunity for comment and input.

After some board discussion, the board agreed to find other candidates for the facilitator contract.

“I rarely get involved in micromanaging and who you all hire, the only reason I’m going to make this statement now is because of the abysmal track record this district has had with students with special needs,” board member John Salazar said. “We just saw the $500,000 catastrophe we went through with the ATP students, we’ve put these parents and children through so much stress….If it doesn’t start good, it won’t end good. I think we should just get a few other candidates and let them have some involvement in this.”

SDUHSD Board President Amy Herman initially said she was concerned about delaying the work of the task force and from the recommendation, it seemed like the selected facilitator was a good fit. However, after listening to public input, Herman said she would be willing to table the selection of the recommended facilitator and bring forward different candidates.

“I want this to work,” Herman said. “I want to regain the trust of the special education community.”