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Council Withholds School Funding at District’s Request

By Jorge Casuso

April 23 -- Concerned some parents may have been “coerced” into signing confidentially clauses in their special education agreements, District officials asked the City Council Tuesday to withhold some $500,000 in funding until the allegations are investigated and reforms approved by the School Board.

Schools Supt. Dianne Talarico told the council -- which saw two of its members cry and another grow angry -- 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.”

“I ask that the council hold the funds for an additional 30 days until I can make recommendations to the board,” said Talarico, adding that she also wanted time to speak to the parents who made the allegations.

The District, she said, was willing to lift the confidentiality clauses at the parents’ request. She also is considering recommending that the District bring in third party mediators to help during negotiations with parents to determine what services their children need.

But council members were skeptical District officials would embark on the serious changes needed to radically alter a “culture of fear” that has left special ed parents ashamed, frustrated and powerless to help the sons and daughters with disabilities who are left behind.

“I’m not convinced that she’s going to do something in 30 days,” said Mayor Herb Katz, who was the parent of two special ed students. “She hasn’t done anything yet.”

Council members said they were shocked to learn the confidentiality clauses remained in the agreements after the School Board had imposed a moratorium to signal to the council that the policy -- which council members worried resulted in a lack of “transparency” -- had changed.

“One of the largest problems you have,” Katz told the superintendent, “is they (parents) don’t trust you, and they don’t trust your staff. What are you going to do about it?

“These people are scared,” Katz said. “That’s why they’re coming to us, and they shouldn’t be coming to us. When we talked about this, we said no confidentiality agreements. We said none. . . It’s not transparent and shouldn’t happen in Santa Monica.”

“This was a bit of a shock,” said Council member Bobby Shriver, referring to parents who complained they had been coerced. “I was stunned.”

Shriver then tried to get Talarico to say she would take extreme disciplinary measures if she found that staff had lied when they assured her the parents had requested the confidentiality clauses.

“If you found some were coerced, what would you do?” Shriver asked.

“There’s progressive discipline,” Talarico said. “”I can’t go into further detail. It’s a personnel matter. I can’t do that right now.”

“What kind of matter would you call that?”

“If I could prove they would tell me untruths, there would be consequences,” Talarico said.

“I would consider it the most serious matter that would require the most extreme consequences,” Shriver said. “But you don’t agree with me.”

“I don’t disagree with you, either,” Talarico said.

To change the culture, Shriver said, you need to say that “lying is an extremely serious matter.”

“Lying is an extremely serious matter,” Talarico said.

But Talarico warned that that changing the district’s culture would take time.

“The culture didn’t get where it is overnight, and it won’t change overnight,” she told the council, noting that it took one California district eight years to change.

“It’s a top priority for me creating a culture where they (parents) feel safe. There are organizational changes on the horizon that might send" the right message.

Council members were taken aback by the superintendent’s statement.

“That it will take years to change the culture is categorically outrageous,” said Shriver.

Shriver said he was glad his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, wasn’t at the meeting.

“She would have lost it,” he said, “really lost it.”

Shriver wasn’t the only council member who became emotional. Both Katz and Council member Pam O’Connor cried.

“It’s about the children,” said O’Connor, who said she felt vindicated after coming under fire from parents for threatening to withhold funding until changes were made.

“That’s the bottom line here that we have to keep in focus,” O’Connor said. “We can’t point blame, but we have to keep our eye on the ball.”

O’Connor said she was surprised when Talrico told the council she might not be able to stay for all of the testimony from parents because, “I have oodles of work to do.”

“I wouldn’t have said” that, O’Connor said. “I would have said, ‘I will say here until the last speaker speaks.’ I would have said, ‘Lying will not be tolerated.’”

Tuesday’s council meeting came after the School Board last week took up a series of recommendations to reform the District’s Special Education program that included using settlement agreements only as “a last resort.”

The recommendations were in response to an independent report that vindicated longstanding complaints by special ed parents that the District’s practice has forced them to bargain for their children’s education behind closed doors, then barred them from disclosing the terms.

According to the report by Lou Barber & Associates, the District had entered into 140 settlement agreements with parents over the past three years, compared to few if any for most California districts, a number that “needs to be reduced dramatically.”

Consultants found that the confidentiality clauses make it difficult to evaluate a student’s progress and make placing students transferring to another district more difficult. The policy, consultants said, also breeds distrust.

Talarico’s three-page “Preliminary Draft Response” listed, among other recommended actions, “creating a culture of inclusion,” recruiting and developing highly qualified staff and providing “early intervention to struggling students.”

The recommendations also included improving fiscal management by conducting quarterly reviews of the special education program and hiring a consultant to determine the district’s capacity to provide in-house services.


“One of the largest problems you have is they (parents) don’t trust you, and they don’t trust your staff." Herb Katz


“The culture didn’t get where it is overnight, and it won’t change overnight.” Dianne Talarico


“That it will take years to change the culture is categorically outrageous.” Bobby Shriver


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