Board Imposes Strict Moratorium on Confidentiality Clauses
By Jorge Casuso
May 19 -- The School Board last week placed a strict moratorium
on any use of confidentiality clauses in Special Education settlement
agreements, even in the unforeseen event a parent might request
The move Thursday was one of several changes made by the board
to its controversial Special Education policy before the District
returns to the City Council to request $530,000 in additional City
funding for local schools.
Other changes included directing staff to search for a consultant
who would oversee the Special Education Program on a regular basis
and file reports at least on a quarterly basis. The board also is
considering hiring an ombudsman to help mediate disputes between
the District and Special Education parents.
The changes came two weeks after Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker,
who is at the center of a firestorm over special education settlement
agreements, resigned his post under a settlement with the District.
“We need a cultural shift and a new paradigm will emerge
when the board takes leadership and puts the law down,” said
Board President Oscar de la Torre.
The changes were made after Superintendent Diane Talarico asked
the council last month to withhold funding until the board approved
reforms and the District investigated allegations that some parents
may have been “coerced” into signing the confidentially
Council members said they were shocked to learn the clauses continued
to be included in the settlement agreements, despite a moratorium
imposed by the board after the issue became a major hurdle to disbursing
the annual City funding last year.
On Thursday, School Board member Kathy Wisnicki, who represents
Malibu, a city whose parents were staunch supporters of Walker and
his policies, said the board knew full well the clauses continued
to be used.
“I think we have known all along,” Wisnicki said. “I
think we have to take responsibility in it. I don’t want to
sit here as a board and blame any individual, any department.
“We as a board sit in closed session and approve every one
of them,” Wisnicki said. “Everything that’s gone
on we’ve known about.”
But other board members disagreed, saying that staff did not reveal
the continued use of confidentiality clauses when they asked the
board to approve settlement agreements in closed session.
“That level of detail was never followed,” de la Torre
said. “It was because I asked” staff about the clauses
that the board leaned the moratorium was being violated.
“Confidentiality clauses were not board policy,” said
Board member Maria Leon Vazquez. “We have to move on, and
we have to take responsibility.”
Vazquez’s motion to “eliminate confidentiality clauses
completely,” came after school activists urged the board to
act decisively before returning to the council for funding.
“This is a pivotal moment,” said Chris Harding, who
does not have children in Special Education but is a major player
in the District. “If you adopt some concrete steps, you can
restore confidence in the District. . . and with the City Council.”
“If you don’t address the issue and get the ($530,000),
you’ll have to take it out of the budget,” said Paul
Silvern, a member of the District’s Financial Oversight Committee.
“You must act quickly.
“I think you must get rid of (confidentiality clauses) completely,”
Silvern said there is no evidence that the settlement agreements
instituted in 2005 by former superintendent John Deasy to curb escalating
special education costs were saving the District money.
He noted that in addition to the $23 million for Special Education
programs and transportation the District receives annually from
the State, the District spent an additional $11.7 million in general
Special education, Silvern noted, “is a very big part of
the budget,” but, he added, “the general satisfaction
with the program has been plummeting.”
The board made it clear Thursday that the new moratorium would
be taken seriously.
The previous moratorium on confidentiality clauses was imposed
by the board last year after the council delayed the additional
$530,000 it gives the district when parents complained that they
were being forced to bargain for their children’s education
behind closed doors, then barred them from disclosing the terms.
They also said the negotiations failed to leave a paper trail parents
need to hold the district accountable and coerced parents into settling
for less than their children were due.
On April 22, Talarico told the council that she had heard through
“the rumor mill” that some of the parents who signed
confidentiality clauses in 28 of the 37 agreements entered into
this year said they “felt coerced.”
The controversy over confidentiality clauses was fueled in December
2006 when it was learned that the District had included a similar
clause in a settlement agreement with Winston Braham, the School
District’s top financial officer, leading to concern there
was a “lack of transparency” at District headquarters.