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School 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 it.

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 clauses.

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,” Slivern said.

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 fund subsidies.

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.


“We need a cultural shift." Oscar de la Torre


“Everything that’s gone on we’ve known about.” Kathy Wisnicki


“The general satisfaction with the program has been plummeting.” Paul Silvern


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