Education board votes to cooperate with special education 'audit'

In an email to Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly and Superintendent of Schools Gary Richards on May 22, Marissa Lowthert asked them each to “commit publicly to support the BOF investigation of the BOE offers.”

She asked that they do so at that evening’s Board of Education meeting, and they did.

Following an executive session discussion about the pending claim filed by Ms. Lowthert and her husband, Christopher, the board voted to cooperate in the special education audit.

Mr. Likly publicly presented the subject for board members to discuss and decide “whether or not we feel we want to support that effort and going forward based on that,” he said.

When considering the special education audit, board member Christine Finkelstein said she believes the board’s first priority has to be confidentiality.

“If we can do that in a way, legally, where we don’t betray any confidentiality, then I would think that that’s something we would want to do,” she said.

Mr. Likly said that confidentiality has been a real challenge for the board, claiming it’s the reason why the board has appeared to be twiddling its thumbs.

“Why we look like we’re … not doing anything is because we can’t publicly react to a lot of what’s going on,” he said.

Board member Glenn Hemmerle said aside from what’s required by law to be confidential, the education board has “nothing to hide.”

“There’s no question that we need to be as open and provide support the best we can to help whatever process needs to be in place to resolve all the outstanding questions that have been raised,” said Mr. Hemmerle.

“We should really, as a board, do whatever we can, whatever we need to do to address the issues.”

Following board members’ comments, Ms. Finkelstein moved that the board authorize Mr. Likly and Dr. Richards “to enter into agreements to take such actions necessary to cooperate fully with town’s attorney in conducting an investigation into the settlement negotiations with the family in question.”

The motion passed unanimously with the vote of the five board members present: Mr. Likly, Ms. Finkelstein, Mr. Hemmerle, Laura Schwemm, and Chris Stroup.

Finance board’s next steps

The Board of Finance has begun preliminary steps of investigation into problems raised by Ms. Lowthert.

“One of the things I thought we should do is put our objectives and expectations into writing,” standing Chairwoman Lynne Vanderslice said last week.

A handout distributed at the meeting, which Ms. Vanderslice said was intended to “facilitate” discussion, outlined the main issues before the board.

They included:

  • Who authorized settlement agreement offers to the Lowtherts?
  • Were the offers legally authorized?
  • Are there proper controls over Board of Education spending?
  • Is the situation regarding the Lowtherts an outlier or “business as usual?”

Board member James Meinhold said during the meeting, “I think at the end of the day, you want to make sure things were done correctly … and that the outcome was a responsible one.”

In seeking to understand the facts revolving around these questions, the board has requested a fair amount of information from the Board of Education but has received minimal response.

One, according to the handout, occurred after the Board of Finance asked about the possibility of conducting an audit of special education spending by the Board of Education. The Board of Education’s attorney, Thomas Mooney of Shipman & Goodwin, said such an audit was outside the board’s legal authority.

Another response was an “assurance by the Town Attorney that this was a special education related offer, made after consideration of the costs associated with rejecting the parent’s request for alternative placement due to harmful air quality.”

As of last week, the Board of Education still had not responded to a number of Board of Finance requests regarding:

  • Local policies and procedures related to special education settlement agreements.
  • Statistical data on settlements.
  • An indication of the veracity of a settlement offer supplied by Ms. Lowthert.
  • Affidavits from both the schools’ and Ms. Lowthert’s attorneys that indicate the negotiations between the parties dealt exclusively with special education services.