Vanderslice shares legal settlement research with finance board

Lynne Vanderslice, the Board of Finance’s acting chair for matters pertaining to the investigation of Board of Education legal settlements, provided an update on what she had done since the finance board’s June 17 meeting.

Before diving into an information packet she created for the board’s July 22 meeting, Ms. Vanderslice first walked fellow board members through the definition of “legal settlements.”

“‘Legal settlements’ is actually the term used by the schools. If you look on their budget and financial statements, they refer to these agreements as ‘legal settlements.’ So, that’s where the term comes from,” she said.

“Because it’s the financial term they use, it’s the term that we will continue to use.”

IDEA vs. Section 504

Ms. Vanderslice said the legal settlements, which she also referred to as “education legal settlements,” each derive from “a claim for services and placements under either the Individuals with Disability Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and/or under Section 504.”

IDEA is a federal statute, while Section 504 is a broad civil rights law.

The purpose of IDEA, said Ms. Vanderslice, is to “ensure free and appropriate education services for children with disabilities that fall within on disability category.”

“If there is a legal settlement that comes about because of a claim to services under the Individuals with Disability Education Act, that legal settlement will be accounted for and budgeted for actual cost expense through special education,” explained Ms. Vanderslice.

“If it is a legal settlement that comes about because of the 504, that legal settlement would be in the regular education budget.”

Ms. Vanderslice said the two laws differ in their evaluation processes, funding, mediation and dispute resolutions.

“When we hear ‘special education,’ we think of PPTs and individual education plans and all of that — that’s under the Individuals with Disability Education Act,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

“Because 504 is a civil rights law, if there is a dispute, it doesn’t go through the due process, which is for the other [IDEA]. It goes through the Federal Office of Civil Rights, so you would file a complaint in the regional office up in Boston.”

Ms. Vanderslice said she found information on IDEA and Section 504 on the National Learning Center for Disabilities (NLCD) website.

Before presenting the information on IDEA and Section 504 to the finance board, Ms. Vanderslice said, she “ran it by” Ann Paul, of Wilton Public Schools’ special services department, “to see if she thought anything was inconsistent.”

“I did a lot of research to educate myself and I thought this was the best out of everything I had read, and she agreed,” said Ms. Vanderslice. “She thought it was very thorough, comprehensive and accurate.”

Requests

Ms. Vanderslice reviewed the documents and information the finance board requested from the school district, including:

  • Special education policies and procedures.
  • 504 policies and procedures.
  • Expenditure authorization policies for legal settlements.
  • Legal settlements statistics.

“As of today, there are no written special education policies and procedures,” Ms. Vanderslice said.

“In my conversations with Ann Paul, and at the last Board of Education meeting, Ann indicated that she is going to be documenting that over the summer in the form of a manual, and she expects to have that completed by the upcoming school year.”

Ms. Vanderslice said Ms. Paul told her that the districts in the area thought written policies and procedures were not necessary.

However, Ms. Vanderslice said, a number of districts are putting their policies and procedures into writing.

“I know Stamford has it done and it’s online. Norwalk has it done and it’s up online,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

“We talked about doing a management letter at the end of this, and my recommendation would be that we support this and recommend that [Wilton’s] be put online. I found it very helpful.”

Ms. Vanderslice said she received Wilton Public Schools’ 504 policies and procedures, which she suggested each finance board member read “as an independent person” to see how “comfortable” they feel with the policies and procedures.

Ms. Vanderslice said she asked for copies of the school district’s expenditure authorization policies, but there are no written financial policies and procedures for settlements.

“In previous years, Ken Post, who is the financial director, was generally not involved in settlement negotiations,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

“A decision was made and as of July 1, Ken will now be part of the negotiating team on the financial issues, which I think you would applaud as a good move.”

Ms. Vanderslice explained that the superintendent has the authority to spend “as much money as he deems necessary in a settlement, as long as that settlement does not bring the Board of Education over the budget that is given to them for the year.”

“My recommendation is that if we do a management letter that we make a recommendation, asking the Board of Education to consider an additional financial control by requiring the superintendent to seek authority or notification if a settlement exceeds some set number,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

Board of Finance member Warren Serenbetz concurred.

“The superintendent would come to the Board of Education and say, ‘Here’s the risk if we don’t do this; here’s the risk if we do,’” he said.

“There doesn’t need to be any detail as to who, what, when or where, other than this is the financial risk if we don’t do it; here’s the financial risk if we do.”

Jeffrey Rutishauser said he thinks the recommendation would “strengthen the process without compromising confidentiality.”

“It forces one to really be justified and right now, there’s no need to be justified,” said Mr. Rutishauser.

With regard to legal settlement statistics, Ms. Vanderslice said the Board of Education declined to provide specific information requested by the finance board, “due to confidentiality reasons.”

Ms. Vanderslice said she was able to look at the Board of Education’s 2010-2015 budgets and find the names of educational institutions, the number of students and what was budgeted.

“All budgeted and actual legal settlements for the time periods ... were all special education — there were no 504 settlements budgeted or incurred during that time period,” she said.

Ms. Vanderslice gave the Board of Finance a chart with the information she was able to gather on 76 student outplacements between 2010 and 2015, including current year tuition that she found on the schools’ websites.

According to Ms. Vanderslice, 27 of the 76 institutions “either self-identify as serving students with a learning disability or therapeutic need or I could identify that they do by doing a Google search.”

“I looked at the schools themselves or I went to parent resource organizations and I saw all of those schools mentioned,” said Ms. Vanderslice.

Prior to her research, Ms. Vanderslice said, she didn’t know some of the schools, like Wooster School and Lesley College, offered programs for students with learning disabilities.

“Seeing the name of the school doesn’t tell you the whole story,” she said.

Based on what she found, Ms. Vanderslice said, “It appears we’re paying partial because if you cost out the placements by what the full tuition is, you don’t get to what the budget is.”

Due process hearings

Ms. Vanderslice also looked at all of the closed due process hearings listed on the Connecticut Department of Education website.

“Of the 156 closed hearings for this year, only five were fully adjudicated, meaning only five went through the entire process with the hearing officer,” explained Ms. Vanderslice.

“The rest of them were dismissed due to a settlement or having reached a settlement outside of the hearing.”

Ms. Vanderslice said 40% of all Connecticut school districts had a due process hearing in 2014.

“What we’re seeing in Wilton doesn’t seem to be unusual. Wilton had four hearings in 2014. For the year before, it had three,” she said.

“If you look, New Canaan had one, Weston had one, Region 9 had two, Westport had four, Darien had seven and Ridgefield had eight. So, we we’re not way out there.”