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MDUSD implements transportation changes without first allowing public to see report on which they are based

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012 at 11:48 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Quite by accident, I have obtained a draft report that includes much sought-after information about Mt. Diablo district plans to drastically change student transportation services in the next school year.

In April, the district asked the independent Fiscal Crisis and Management Team, called FCMAT, to evaluate its transportation programs and recommend cost-cutting measures or other changes that could improve operations. Many special education parents have been anxiously awaiting the results because they know their children could be affected.

District officials alluded to the report’s findings and recommendations in a June 20 letter to parents outlining upcoming changes. In addition, special education Administrator Carolyn Patton outlined them in a June 25 oral report to trustees.

But the written findings and recommendations were not presented to the board or released it to the public. So, I requested a copy of them, along with a copy of the letter to parents, which Patton referenced at the June 25 meeting.

In an e-mail to Superintendent Steven Lawrence, I wrote that it was my understanding the board had received both documents.

He sent me the following e-mail response on July 19: “That’s interesting because I have not received a draft or final report from FCMAT. I will have to check with board members to determine where the reports they have received came from because to my knowledge no one at the district has received copies of the draft or final reports.”

I learned Tuesday that this was not true, when Lawrence sent this email message, with an attachment: “I needed to check with Carolyn and I believe this is the letter you are referring to. It is a (sic) exit letter of the FCMAT audit.”

But the attachment was not a letter. It was the draft transportation report, which Lawrence previously claimed he didn’t have.

It was dated July 18 — the day before Lawrence sent the email saying he didn’t have the report and that no one else did either.

Oops.

Lawrence had inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. He had also provided proof that his previous assertion about not having the report was false.

I posted a link to the document on my blog, along with a copy of the June 20 letter sent by the district to parents, which I received from a reader.

In another email today, Lawrence admitted he sent me the report in error.

“I made a mistake,” he wrote. “ That is our draft report and has not been shared with the board or any member of the public. Because people have been on vacation we are still vetting the draft to get corrections back to FCMAT. As part of the FCMAT process they always check findings with a school district before the report is finalized. Therefore, there could be errors in the current document. I know that I cannot mandate that you do or don’t do anything with the report, but our goal is to share the actual final report with the board at the Aug. 13 meeting. At that point, the final report would be a public document and you could share any parts of it that you felt appropriate. Attached is the letter that we received at the end of the (FCMAT) visit.”

Here is a link to the letter — dated June 5 — which outlines the transportation issues FCMAT planned to evaluate and includes preliminary findings and recommendations: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/document-preview.aspx?doc_id=124879803

Recommendations include revamping staffing, curbing door-to-door service and cutting back on student transportation provided by private vendors.

It appears that the letter sent to parents was based on the preliminary findings in the June 5 FCMAT letter, which the public never got a chance to see. Likewise, the draft report — which Lawrence appears to have initially attempted to conceal — would not have been made public if he had not accidentally sent it to me.

The district’s lack of transparency is causing frustration among parents, who want to know why it is making changes to their children’s transportation plans. They deserved to have been given the opportunity to weigh in on the findings and recommendations BEFORE the district decided to implement them.

Instead, parents are being told now that the changes are a virtually a done deal and they’ll get to see why when the board reviews the final report Aug. 13.

Do you think the district should have invited public input on the recommendations before implementing them?

JULY 28 UPDATE: I sent Superintendent Steven Lawrence an email Wednesday, which included the following statement and question:

“…the report you mistakenly sent me was dated the day before you sent that email. Also Bill (Gillaspie) confirmed that FCMAT sent you the report in a July 18 email. Therefore, you had in fact received a draft report from FCMAT when you stated that you had not and when you stated that to your knowledge no one at the district had received it. Why did you make those false statements?”

Here is Lawrence’s response, which he sent in a Thursday email:

“I responded prior to receiving anything from FCMAT.”

In order to verify that FCMAT had sent Lawrence the document the day before he denied having it, I asked Gillaspie for a copy of the email sent by FCMAT.

Here is the copy Gillaspie sent:

“From: Leonel Martinez
Sent: Wednesday, July 18, 2012 1:44 PM
To: lawrences@mdusd.org
Cc: Bill Gillaspie
Subject: FCMAT draft report

Steven Lawrence, Ph.D., Superintendent

Mt. Diablo Unified School District
1936 Carlotta Drive
Concord, CA 94519

Dear Superintendent Lawrence:

Attached is a digital copy of the draft transportation report developed by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Please review this draft document and contact us with any corrections or suggested changes. After we receive this information, we will proceed to finalize the report.

Sincerely,

Leonel Martinez
FCMAT Technical Writer
(661) 636-4387

G: William P. Gillaspie, Ed.D., FCMAT Administrative Officer”

The above email shows that the draft report was sent to Lawrence at 1:44 p.m. July 18 — the day BEFORE he claimed he did not have it and said that no one else at the district did either.

The email included the same draft report attachment that Lawrence accidentally sent to me. Although some blog commenters have questioned the fact that the font with the July 18 date on the cover and cover letter is different from the rest of the document, the pdf from FCMAT includes the same dates. So, it appears that is the way the district received the report.

Now that Lawrence’s veracity has been called into question regarding the FCMAT report, I have requested copies of all emails and correspondence between the district and FCMAT from April to the present.

JULY 29 UPDATE: I have received an email from CAC Chairperson Lorrie Davis, who has informed me that the CAC executive board met with some district staff members to discuss the June 20 letter that would be sent to parents. Davis also said the district shared the June 5 FCMAT letter with the committee.

Here’s what Davis wrote today in an email:

“In regards to special ed. transportation, the CAC executive committee met with Mildred Browne, Greg Rolen and Carolyn Patton before the letter was sent out to parents explaining the new procedures. I appreciated them discussing the new procedures with us and listening to our concerns. In regards to ‘clustering’ our non-severe students, our biggest concerns are supervision and congestion at school sites. Parents I have spoken with have stated they are willing to cluster if it helps to save money and services provided for their children at school. We were amazed at how much money is being paid to parents for mileage reimbursement and agree that this practice needs to be controlled.”

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  • Theresa Harrington

    It’s my understanding that Hansen has asked for the Poway analysis, but has received no response.

  • Anon

    If Rolen is the special Ed law expert there is defiantly conflict of interest. His kids and girlfriends kid goes to nps with transportation. This is a fact. He had better suffer through this like the rest of us. By the way the June letter was also sent in Spanish so I am sure he profited from that. I really wish these people would open their eyes and realize how much they are hated. They need to tuck tail and whimper off.

  • Doctor J

    @TH, Did FCMAT provide to you the expert analysis they were given ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    FCMAT wants to release the analysis, but it has given Greg Rolen a courtesy call letting him know they intend to release it, unless he has a legal objection. They are waiting to hear back from him.

  • Doctor J

    Once Rolen gave it to FCMAT, any legal objection evaporated since it then became a public record — your legal beagles are probably delighted with Rolen’s analysis and would be willing to force FCMAT into releasing the report. Perhaps your lawyers should do a preemptive letter to avoid the wrangling if Rolen demands “all copies” be returned.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Yes, Gillaspie said that FCMAT believes it is a public record, since the district gave it to the outside agency. It remains to be seen if Rolen will try to come up with a legal objection.

    Yesterday, Gillaspie said he expected Rolen to get back to him by the end of the day. So far, he has received no response.

  • Doctor J

    If you check the FCMAT/MDUSD contract, FCMAT required MDUSD to supply copies of all prior reports.

  • Theresa Harrington

    So, FCMAT must have received the MGT report after all. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s not mentioned in the transportation draft report.

  • Anon

    Is any of this illegal? Or just immoral?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Anon: It’s unclear specifically what you are referring to. Certainly it is legal for the district to request an outside analysis and to provide it to an outside agency. But, the district should have realized that by doing so, that analysis became a public record. So, the district should now agree with FCMAT’s opinion and not obstruct its release.

    While it may technically be “legal” for the district to appear to attribute information to FCMAT that it actually produced itself, it is up to the board and public to decide whether that is acceptable behavior by district staff.

  • Doctor J

    Sad experience has taught us that FCMAT reports that just accept as true information given it by the district without independent verification and audit, are no more accurate than the misinformation supplied to FCMAT. I would not assume FCMAT received the MGT report from the district unless FCMAT acknowledges it.

  • Doctor J

    When might we expect this new blog post on the FCMAT information provided ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    It turns out that FCMAT is very short-staffed and may not always have time to do in-depth verification or analysis for its reports.

    The draft report states: “In most districts throughout the state, approximately 10 percent of the special education population receives transportation services on average.”

    But, when I asked for a list of districts that transport 10 percent of students, Gillaspie was initially unable to name any. He said this was an “impression” FCMAT had, but that it was not tied to any actual data that he could produce. Finally, he said he thought Poway was an example.

    I’m working on the blog post now, but have already revealed much of what it will say in these comments. I have also attempted to contact Greg Rolen, Mildred Browne and Carolyn Patton to get answers to some questions I have about the June 20 letter. Patton returned my call, but said she had not yet seen my email list of questions. She said she would read the email and call me back, but I have not heard from her again.

  • Doctor J

    For Gillaspie to admit that a FCMAT report statement which appears to be “factual” is in reality not based on any facts, but just impressions, really hurts FCMAT’s credibility. Every statement in a FCMAT report now is suspect unless it is backed up by a factual statement.

  • Theresa Harrington

    He said that I could look at all the transportation reports they have posted on their website.
    But, it was clear that no one at FCMAT had actually compared the numbers themselves to verify whether “most” districts do, in fact, transport 10 percent of special education students.

  • Doctor J

    Since there are approximately 1000 districts in the state of all sizes, including unified, secondary and elementary, to compile that kind of information would be a major study — and Gillaspie cannot point to a single study or factual comparison. Once you had the information, then a thorough mathmatical analysis would need to be undertaken, to determine averages, means and medians by district size, urban v rural, and all kinds of factors that could affect the conclusions. I am quickly losing respect for FCMAT. Their statement is without a basis in fact.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Gillaspie said FCMAT does not survey districts statewide. The statement is based on FCMAT’s observations of districts that it has worked with, he said.

  • Doctor J

    Well Gillaspie’s statement of “In most districts throughout the state . . ” is clearly unsupported by facts, overstates the experience of FCMAT, and destroys their credibility for factual accuracy. I perused their website, and it appears that they have done less than 50 — maybe even less than 25 — maybe even less than 10 — transportation reports on special education transportation. So I don’t see where an observation of 10/1000 districts, or even 50/1000 districts of varying sizes and locales, could equate to an accurate statement of “most districts”. Mr. Gillaspie, show me the facts please or get out of the business.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Gillaspie said FCMAT has prepared over 1,000 studies since 1992.

    “Just kind of based on our observations over the years in doing transportation studies,” he said, “we have found from our impressions that about 10 percent of special education kids are transported. It’s not statistical data. It’s our impression.”

  • Doctor J

    A lot has changed in Special Education transportation in the last 20 years. Not all those studies involved special education transportation. Very few did. It has only become an issue in the last few lean years of budget reductions.

  • Anon

    Wow. To be a fly on the wall for some of the conversations that must be happening between Lawrence and the evil henchman of the board.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here is what Gillaspie initially wrote in an email response:

    “Over the years we observe that most districts that control their transportation placements seem to transport about 10% of the total special education population.”

    I asked if he was differentiating between districts “that control their transportation placements” and others. But, he said that statement was not meant to be a subset of districts. He did add, however, that districts that “control their transportation placements” are cost-conscious.

    So, this could suggest that districts that don’t control their transportation placements (and are not consciously trying to cut costs) might transport special education students at higher rates.

  • Doctor J

    No factual basis for Gillaspie’s claim. Some lawyer will slice and dice him on cross-examination and destroy his credibility. Besides his claim of cost controlling over the needs of students will not be well received.

  • Theresa Harrington

    He did not suggest cost-controlling over the needs of students. He was very clear that districts should provide needed services, but try to cut costs where it makes sense.

    However, I am surprised by how many times the percentage is mentioned in FCMAT’s report, without any statistical backup.

    The report also states: “Mt. Diablo Unified provides school transportation to a significantly higher percentage of special education students than most school districts in California.”

    One blog reader called me to ask which districts FCMAT was referring to, assuming there might be an addendum with a chart comparing several districts. It was thanks to that reader that I inquired further. Now, parents are left wondering about the reliability of the data presented by FCMAT and the district.

  • g

    Mr. Gillaspie, as well as many of his understaffed team may be quite good at their jobs (the recent board coach excepted) and may have started their jobs at FCMAT with good intentions.

    Understanding that the ‘draft’ is fairly well complete, I for one, was far more impressed by the two year old (and ignored) MGT Assessment.

    It showed thoroughness, impartiality, transparency, and a visible lack of what seems to me to be some attempt by FCMAT to be politically correct with some of their old friends and acquaintances.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here is what Gillaspie said about FCMAT’s relationship with the district:

    “Our relatonship with the district is very neutral,” he said. “We’re independent. We’re external. We just say, ‘This is our best opinion.’”

    He said the district is under no obligation to implement any of FCMAT’s recommendations.

  • Anon

    Seems like just another part of the well oiled machine is still turning. An audit is an Audit. Everything should be factual.

  • Theresa Harrington

    It appears that the district may have done its own comparison, based on the information it inserted into the parents’ letter regarding the “similarly sized district.”

    In the interest of openness and transparency, the district should share its comparative data with the public — including the names of the districts.

  • Doctor J

    FCMAT’s own website only claims “dozens” not “thousands” in the Special Ed area: “FCMAT has provided special education management assistance for dozens of school districts and county offices of education across California to help them more efficiently and effectively provide the services that special education students need. FCMAT’s expertise in this area helps districts and county offices bring improved serves to students while maximizing available funding.”

  • g

    The district has shown quite well that they put little weight on the studies they have given lip service to.

    On the other hand. The contract with FCMAT was for two separate studies:

    $36,900 for both reviews.
    $14,700 for Transportation
    $22,200 for Special Education
    to be paid “…from a one-time carryover or a district donation account.”

    If there is a Special Education Review in the draft of what appears to me to be no more than a Transportation Report, it would fit on one of the periods!

    Look again at the contract; the “Scope of the Work” spelled out under Special Education Program Review.

    Is there another Report-draft-something else gathering dust to be sprung up on Aug 13?

  • Doctor J

    @TH, I would assume that Carolyn Patton conveniently did not get back to you today. Par for the course or dare I say . . .Standard Operating Procedure.

  • g

    When you read the “Scope of the Work” on that 4/13 contract, you will see that they pretty much used the MGT report as their “outline” of directions given to FCMAT. Shocking?

  • Theresa Harrington

    Dr. J: You are correct that she did not get back to me. Now, I regret having mentioned the email. I should have just started asking her the questions when she called.

    g: Yes, Gillaspie said that FCMAT has sent its draft Special Education review to the district and is awaiting corrections. He said it would be done in about two weeks, which means it could be presented Aug. 13, if the district is committed to transparency.

    Regarding the scope, this again reminds me of what Gus Kramer told me about some people liking to surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear. Or, as appears to partially be the case with the transportation report, people who tell them the same thing as their third party legal expert.

  • g

    Well, if they thought their transportation report would be in Rolen’s favor, they were wrong. Being “politically correct” it did everything but come right out and say “Rolen is ‘bleeping’ up your Transportation Dept!”

    They were way overly generous in leaving his name under Lawrence’s in the organization chart.

    The district eliminated a Transportation Director, and a Shop Supervisor. They have clerks and Special Ed employees making routing decisions. They have no control at all over fuel or parts purchase/usage. They have three driver trainers sitting around waiting for someone to train instead of driving a route…….. All they didn’t say out loud is that much of the department from Rolen down may be a bunch of gold-brickers.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here is the blog post that takes a closer look at the June 20 letter to parents, comparing it to the FCMAT report: http://bit.ly/M2m9c0