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MDUSD appears to misrepresent some information in letter to parents about special education transportation changes

By Theresa Harrington
Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 at 6:31 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

Although a June 20 letter to some Mt. Diablo district parents appears to attribute details about upcoming transportation changes to an outside agency, I have found that the district actually generated some of the information itself.

The letter includes drastic changes in special education busing procedures, including one that is being implemented “immediately,” one that will go into effect Aug. 26 and one set to begin Jan. 7.

According to the letter, the changes were based on a “Financial Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) study to assist with identifying more effective and efficient means to provide special education transportation.”

Yet, the district didn’t receive FCMAT’s draft transportation report until July 18 — nearly one month after the letter was written. The district had, however, received a June 5 letter from FCMAT outlining some of its preliminary findings and recommendations, which it had not publicly disclosed.

The June 20 letter to parents states: “The study revealed that we are significantly overidentifying transportation as a related service for special education students. For example, the district currently provides transportation to 26 percent of our students with an IEP (Individualized Education Programs); however, in most districts reviewed by FCMAT the average was approximately 10 percent. The FCMAT team found that the district has an inordinately high number of parents who receive reimbursement in lieu of transportation services. One similarly sized district has only two parents who are paid in lieu while we reimburse 144 parents. In response to the FCMAT findings and recommendations, the district is modifying special education transportation services as follows.”

First, the letter states that parents will only be reimbursed for transporting students if the district is unable to transport them.

Second, it states that special education students who attend their neighborhood schools will no longer receive transportation unless they have unique needs.

Third, it says some students will be picked up and dropped off at nearby schools, instead of at their homes, beginning Jan. 7. According to this “cluster model,” students would then be transported to and from schools that are farther away, the letter states.

But when I read FCMAT’s June 5 letter and July 18 draft report, I didn’t see any mention of the “similar sized district” referenced in the Mt. Diablo letter. So, I sent an email to Bill Gillaspie, chief administrative officer for FCMAT, pointing out that the information did not appear in its letter or draft report and asking which district it was using as a comparison, how many special education students it served and what percentage of them were transported to and from school.

“In response to your question, we did not give the district the ‘similarly’ sized district,” he wrote in an e-mail.

We don’t know what district they are referring to, so I can’t tell you how many students with IEPs there are or how many are being transported.

You are correct. We make no reference about this in the draft report.

The district must have that information that they are referring to in their letter to parents.”

I also noticed that the draft report attributed the “cluster” idea to an analysis the district received “from a third party expert in special education law, compliance with IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and best practices.”

“As a result,” the draft report states, “Mt. Diablo Unified is working towards clustering special education students at group stops where appropriate and training special education staff members in the IEP process and in determining whether transportation should be a related service. That same expert has developed a checklist that can be used in IEP meetings to help appropriately direct the provision of service.”

FCMAT then recommends that the district “cluster stops for students who can reasonably get to their local school or a nearby bus stop.” It adds: “These changes should be clearly communicated to parents well in advance.”

Just to double-check, I asked Gillaspie if the cluster idea came from FCMAT or from the district. Here is his emailed response:

“The ‘clustering’ is a MDUSD word that appears to have legal grounds to do so, according to the MSUSD legal counsel. You may clarify that with them, if necessary.

We continued to use it so there would be some consistency in how the district communicates the concept to their parents.

What MDUSD is hoping to do is create group bus stops most likely at the elementary school of residence in their neighborhood, or at a common, public location, like a park, rather than picking up each child at their doorstep.

We agree that having group bus stops for the less severe students who can safely get to those stops is a positive for the children and district.

This can be a cost reducing method of providing transportation, provides for the least restrictive environment and promotes student independence with parent support.

Any change of placement or services will involve an IEP meeting, which consists of a meeting between parent and district.”

I asked for a copy of the independent legal analysis on which the clustering idea was based. Gillaspie said it was FCMAT’s belief that it was a public document, since the district had provided it to FCMAT.

However, as a courtesy, Gillaspie said he called Greg Rolen, the district’s general counsel, on Monday to let him know that FCMAT intended to release the document to me and to see if Rolen had any objection. So far, Gillaspie has not heard back from Rolen.

I also asked Gillaspie to name the districts FCMAT reviewed, when it determined that “most school districts” transport about 10 percent of special education students.

“The figure that we use has no basis in any statistical report or data that is available from the state,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Over the years we observe that most districts that control their transportation placements seem to transport about 10 percent of the total special education population.

(The state wide average of serving children in special education is between 10 percent and 11 percent of the general education population).”

Yet, FCMAT’s report and the district’s letter to parents both appear to represent the transportation percentage as a fact that has been “reviewed” by FCMAT. To further clarify whether FCMAT compared districts, I followed up with a phone call.

Gillaspie said FCMAT had not actually analyzed its data to confirm its conclusion.

“What I told you is an honest opinion what we observe,” he said. “We’re looking at the number of kids that are being transported and the number of kids in special education in the district and we’re drawing a conclusion from that.”

Again, I asked him to name the districts to which he was referring. After hesitating for a few moments, he said the Poway Unified School District transports about 10 percent of its special education students.

“That would be my estimate,” he said. “I would say that you could look at Poway and probably draw that conclusion.”

However, he did not provide the data to back up this conclusion. Instead, he said I could look at the transportation reports on FCMAT’s website.

Gillaspie also said that he was not sure whether other districts “cluster” special education students or whether FCMAT had ever recommended that any other districts do that. He said he would try to find out and get back to me.

I also noticed that the district’s announcement in the parent letter that it will stop transporting students to their neighborhood schools (in most cases), is not specifically stated as one of FCMAT’s recommendations.

Instead, FCMAT recommends improving transportation forms and checklists, which would require parents and district staff to identify whether students attend their neighborhood schools. As previously noted, the recommended checklist in FCMAT’s report was provided by the district’s third-party legal expert.

So, the letter sent to parents includes:

- a change regarding reimbursements, which is partially based on information that FCMAT didn’t even have;

- the elimination of busing to neighborhood schools, which was not expressly recommended by FCMAT; and

- a recommendation regarding clustering, based on a legal analysis provided by the district to FCMAT, which has not been shared with the public.

Parents should be given the opportunity to question the true basis of these decisions, instead of being led to believe they are the direct result of FCMAT’s study.

Gillaspie said it is important for districts to involve those who are affected by changes in discussions before they are implemented.

“As we discussed, to implement program or transportation service changes, open dialogue, meetings, correspondence between the district and parents will be required to be ongoing, to assure transparency and a spirit of working together for the best welfare of each child,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I believe the district is committed to do this as a result of our studies.”

Do you believe the district is committed to open, transparent dialogue with parents in a spirit of working together for the best welfare of each child?

AUG. 2 UPDATE: FCMAT has denied my request for the third party analysis, reversing its previous opinion that it was a public document by now claiming that it is protected under the district’s attorney-client privilege.

Here is FCMAT’s response to my request for the analysis and emails between the district and FCMAT, which I received in an email today:

“Hello Theresa:

In regard to your request for document in connection with our nonpublic draft MDUSD Transportation Report, you asked in reference to page 22 who is the legal expert and requesting for a copy of that legal analysis. The special education legal opinion referred to in the nonpublic draft FCMAT report was provided to us by the district in our capacity as an agent for the district in studying and reporting on transportation issues. The district asserts its attorney/client privilege and we are not in a position to release that document under a public records request. If you intend to pursue this further, you need to deal directly with the district.

The same position applies to any attorney/client communication between the district’s attorneys and FCMAT with regard to the study and report. Accordingly, in providing you with copies of correspondence, including emails, we do not include any such communication as to which the district asserts an attorney/client privilege.

I will be forwarding to you in the near future the copies of email correspondence between FCMAT and MDUSD, as you requested, from April 2012 to present, except for any attorney/client protected material.

It is the practice of FCMAT that we do not comment on draft reports, they are subject to review, edit and comment by the district, prior to finalization and publication.

The MDUSD draft FCMAT transportation report was not released publicly by FCMAT and is not a public record. Mistakenly made public, which should have not been, due to the need for district staff to review for accuracy of data, findings and recommendations. This report remains a draft, no final conclusions have been made, and presently continues to be under review by the district, with there is no required timeline for completion.

When a final report is published on our website, it will speak for itself and FCMAT will have no comment. Any questions about the released report should be directed to the district that commissioned it.

Thank you

Bill
William P. Gillaspie, Ed.D.”

AUG. 8 UPDATE: According to the CAC blog, Superintendent Steven Lawrence says the FCMAT reports will not be on the Aug. 13 agenda: http://bit.ly/MQeISj

AUG. 9 UPDATE: I have received the following email from FCMAT’s attorney, explaining why FCMAT is denying my Public Records Act request:

“Ms. Harrington:

I am the attorney for the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT). I am responding on behalf of FCMAT to your continuing request for a copy of a memorandum sent to the Mount Diablo Unified School District by an attorney engaged by the District for a legal opinion. This memorandum was made available to FCMAT by the District in order that FCMAT could provide the management assistance which the District engaged FCMAT to perform. In our relationship with the District with regard to this engagement, we have been serving as an agent of the District.

The District maintains that the memorandum in question is a confidential communication protected by the attorney client privilege. After careful consideration, I have concluded that the District’s position is correct and, further, that only the District can waive the privilege and it has not waived it by making it available to FCMAT for the accomplishment of the purpose for which the attorney was consulted by the District. Accordingly, FCMAT will not produce this memorandum in response to your public records request. It is my understanding that, except for this memorandum and any communications between FCMAT and the District’s attorneys in the preparation of the transportation report FCMAT has been working on, you have already been provided by Bill Gillaspie of FCMAT all of the communications, including email, that you have asked for.

By separate email immediately following this one, I will be forwarding to you a letter addressed “To Whom It May Concern” at FCMAT, from the District’s General Counsel, Greg Rolen, dated August 1, 2012. This letter states the District’s legal basis for its position and it is in reliance on that position that FCMAT declines to produce the memorandum. If this is a matter that your publication intends to pursue further, you should consider the District to be the real party in interest and an indispensable party.

Frank J. Fekete
Legal Counsel
FCMAT”

Here is the letter Rolen sent to FCMAT: http://www.docstoc.com/docs/document-preview.aspx?doc_id=126421163

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  • Hell Freezing Over

    What is this?

    Subject:  13.13 Community Facilities District # 1 (Measure A)

  • g

    HFO: They are bragging about some of the things they did back in the 90′s with the Mello Roos tax money. These days that money goes to (mostly) just office supplies and equipment, and an occasional chair.

    A year or so ago they said they give each school $800,000.00 per year from those taxes to buy whatever they want.

  • g

    Theresa: Once upon a time, back in 1989 there was a committee to oversee the Measure A (Mello Roos) $90 million bond. I know John Ferrante was on it, and I don’t remember who else. Maybe you (or Alicia) have more info.

    By my calculations, the district has taken At Least $80+million of that money, and it is being used for “general fund” type purchases, with very little going to repair facilities–although, we’ve been told by the district that “legally” facilities can mean copiers, furniture etc.

    However, I really have my doubts about using Mello Roos to pay for Pedersen to be deposed on a Department of Labor Relations issue (Feb?), or in June for what the district calls an ”Open Order item with ‘Dept of Labor Relations’. How can anything to do with Labor Relations be “Facilities?”

    I admit, I don’t understand why or how long Mello Roos can just keep going, and going, and going.

  • g

    Sorry–twice I said Labor Relations, but meant Industrial Relations.

  • Anon

    G,

    Remember Pedersen has an apparent sweet heart deal with the district in which he is allowed to line his pockets from wherever he chooses.

  • Hell Freezing Over

    What is the purpose of item 13.13?

    Is Lawrence trying to raise the $67 a year per parcel on mello roos tax? Look at the attachment on the agenda item 13.13:

    http://esb.mdusd.k12.ca.us/attachments/a156c448-afa7-4a4c-8ca2-b2a683a2ca00.pdf

    “levy and apportion a special tax for the fiscal year 2012/2013″

    What does this item mean?

  • Hell Freezing Over

    See the Aug 18, 2011 (exactly one year ago) On Assignment blog post regarding mello roos / Measure A questionable practices by this school board and administration:

    http://www.ibabuzz.com/onassignment/2011/08/18/mdusd-bond-oversight-committee-meeting-to-address-questions-about-spending-audits/

  • anonawhat

    site principals were asked 2 years ago to relinquish their authority of overseeing the Measure A funds at their site in order to save jobs in Maintenance and Operations……as an office manager I never understood this

  • Doctor J

    Check out the total bull manure response on the Williams Act complaint — specific complaints and the response is really insufficient to tell the specifics of any corrections. I think the Board should reject it. Its going to be a long meeting. I suspect lots of the items are going to be pulled for discussion.

  • g

    Does the turnover at Mount seems a bit more than usual this year too?

  • Doctor J

    How can the Parwar contract even be considered with the FCMAT report being kept secret from the Board ?

  • Doctor J

    Funny how the principal appointments and hirings by the board are NOT retroactive to when they started — sure seems like there are a lot of undone loose strings on this agenda. This meeting could last until 3 or 4 am.

  • Hell Freezing Over

    A lot of docs attached also make statements in regards to a public august 13 meeting – didn’t happen.

  • Theresa Harrington

    The board has chosen to rely on agenda reports and attachments to supplement the minutes.
    Those documents should be accurate, since the minutes include very little additional information.

  • Theresa Harrington

    The district’s decision not to put the Consolidated Application on the consent calendar could be considered a small victory for Willie Mims: http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us/public_itemview.aspx?ItemId=5670&mtgId=346
    In the past, I believe he criticized the board for failing to discuss this very important document, which includes information about Title 1 and other programs.
    However, it looks like data related to suspensions and expulsions — in which Mims was specifically interested — is no longer included on this report.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I wonder if MDHS will get all the materials necessary to implement the new French Honors class: http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us/public_itemview.aspx?ItemId=5624&mtgId=346
    An anonymous Williams Act complaint said French materials on the campus were insufficient: http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us/public_itemview.aspx?ItemId=5673&mtgId=346

  • Doctor J

    The Williams Complaint describes Principal Kate McClatchy, the governess of ToiletGATE, as “‘a blank stare’ of not caring”, “‘not important’ attitude”, and “an unsafe and unealthy atmosphere of ignorance and ignoring on the part of staff, administration and supervisors.” More descriptive comments: “just doesn’t follow through”, “lack of concern” and “sets a tone”. And then read McClatchy’s non-responsive “response” — did we learn anything from her writing ? And Rose Lock and Steven Lawrence accepted that pile of words as a satisfactory Williams response ?

  • Theresa Harrington

    The agenda item for the proposed policy to eliminate “overflow” busing for students who must attend schools less than 5 miles from their home schools does not include any rationale for the change: http://esbpublic.mdusd.k12.ca.us/public_itemview.aspx?ItemId=5744&mtgId=346

    Instead, it merely shows how the amended Board Policy would be changed.

    How can trustees justify such a decision without a detailed staff report outlining the number of students affected and the anticipated savings? If the FCMAT report recommends this change, it should be presented to the public so that parents and the public can comment on it.

  • Doctor J

    @TH#318 Its a racially based policy since the student population overwhelmingly affected will be hispanics — Meadow Homes is the number one target. This piece of the puzzle is necessary to do the next piece which is boundary changes. The Concord Police put a little monkey wrench in Lawrence’s plans earlier this year when it wanted to cut the crossing guards. Since that didn’t happen, Lawrence needs to move fast because next year they will be cut but the policy will already be in place.

  • Theresa Harrington

    Again, the title of this agenda item does not adequately inform the public about what is really being discussed.
    Boundaries are not being changed. Transportation may be eliminated.
    The district should be more transparent in the way it names agenda items.

  • Doctor J

    Lawrence’s little “secret” is the phrase 5 miles from the “home school”. Potentially a students residence could be 10 miles or more from the school he is transfered to — yet the “home school” and the “overflow school” are within 5 miles. Are there any adjacent schools that are more than 5 miles apart. Are we talking as the crow flies, or google maps directions ?

  • g

    Theresa, I would imagine this is just the precursor to enormous boundary changes that will be announced.

    Dr J and I each commented here some time ago about the absurdity of closing Holbrook, “because they could move to just two schools,” while at the same time the District had Jack Schreder working on a Boundary Realignment study, that, if implemented even minimally, will necessitate moving kids at no fewer than SIX elementary schools, just to relieve overcrowding at one or two. Children will be displaced from their home school to make room for other children displaced from their home school, to make room for yet other children displaced from…. It is a really ugly plan.

    In the mean time they keep paying good buddy and major campaign contributor Meehleis to add portables which would be unnecessary if they had done the boundary change to start with.

    Maybe

  • g

    (untimely ‘enter’ key =) Maybe, they have decided to abandon Schreder’s recent work. If they want to renew his contract, which comes up soon I believe, they may need an excuse to have him “wash, rinse, repeat” his multiple studies of the same issues.

  • g

    Dr J: Whether it was intended or not, this will turn out looking (yet again) like a sick, selfish, minority and racially prejudiced plan. Mileage is based from the “home elementary school.” Kids in Holbrook have already had their home school changed to Wren, 1.75+ miles from many of their homes.

    Normally those kids would have gone to Glenbrook. Now their middle school is Oak Grove or El Dorado, or ?

    THE KICKER:

    Under the new plan, using Wren as the “home elementary school” will make it so that they no longer have to transport any of those “one cheek on, one cheek off” students from Glenbrook neighborhoods. Sneaky of them, huh?

    But guess who will still get a limo to Holbrook/Anova.

  • Theresa Harrington

    g: That’s really interesting about Holbrook and Glenbrook. Those families could request that their closed schools be considered their home schools and not their new – far-away schools. The board has the authority to make that kind of amendment to the proposed policy.
    At the previous school closure hearings, Trustee Lynne Dennler expressed a desire to help students who were being unduly impacted by the need to travel long distances get to school. It will be interesting to see if she speaks up again on this topic.
    It will also be interesting to see if the new board candidates show up and comment on the plan. Although the proposal doesn’t impact high schoool students, Barbara Oaks will now be expected to express opinions about students at every grade level.
    The plan may impact students in Bay Point — where Debra Mason lives. I’m not sure if it will impact Clayton — where Ernie DeTrinidad lives — or Walnut Creek, where Brian Lawrence lives.
    It will also be interesting to see what Board President Sherry Whitmarsh says. Oak Grove MS, which her children attended, has the opposite problem — students are leaving in droves under NCLB transfers. But since the district receives funding for NCLB transfers, Superintendent Lawrence is not pushing to eliminate it. However, FCMAT recommended (in its unpublished draft report) that the district consider designating specific NCLB receiver schools, instead of allowing students to transfer to any school in the district.

  • g

    Theresa: Unfortunately, after a full year of being divided, Holbrook parents are no longer ‘organized’ around the school, and the district knows that. A few parents tried to fight the closure, but even then the PTA president had already moved out of the neighborhood, and was not interested in putting up any extra effort. Why she stayed on after moving is beyond my understanding.

    The district knows they have the upper hand against what is becoming an increasingly low income, hard working, Hispanic, black and elderly long-time homeowners area of town.

  • g

    NCLB poses an interesting question. I see indications that there seems to be a big decline and failure of achievement at the middle school level.

    What happens when you close an elementary school in a low income, very diverse neighborhood, that despite all odds, was finally pulling in API over 800; downgrade many of them to much lower performing schools, and graduate/transition many of them up into very poor performing middle schools?

    It would be very interesting to find out how those specific children are doing on API a year later.

  • Theresa Harrington

    I believe the state has developed a longitudinal student tracking system that allows districts to follow specific students instead of just looking at overall API growth. Certainly, parents have this information for their own children.
    I believe the recently released data on children’s well-being showed that students have a much better chance at academic success if they go to a higher-performing school that is not in a poor neighborhood, even if they live in a low-income area.
    So, Glenbrook students sent to Valley View and El Dorado may have had better chances of success than those sent to Oak Grove MS.
    Also, many students from the Glenbrook area attend Sequoia MS, which has a high API score compared to most others districtwide, with a diverse student body.
    Based on what the Oak Grove whistleblowers regarding discipline told me, it sounds like staff at that school had its hands full just trying to maintain order in the classroom. The discipline issues there severely impacted their ability to teach and students’ ability to learn, they said.

  • g

    I seem to remember a quote on here about Gretchen Jacobs saying much of her problems at Sun Terrace were linked to “those Holbrook kids” or something like that.

    It would be interesting to find out how the Wren staff fared with “those Holbrook kids.”

  • Theresa Harrington

    Here is my news brief about Monday’s meeting: http://bit.ly/OJLx8b

  • anon

    How does MDEA feel about Brian Lawrence representing himself as an “Educator” as his primary and current vocation on his ballot designation? Wouldn’t MDEA want to reconsider endorsing someone who claims to be an educator when their role has always been to advocate and represent actual dues paying professional and trained educators?

  • Theresa Harrington

    You make an interesting point, especially in light of the fact that MDEA did not endorse Trustee Lynne Dennler when she ran two years ago, despite her former membership in MDEA. (I’m not sure if retired teachers remain members.)
    Dennler surprised nearly everyone by beating Lawrence and other candidates who filed ballot statements. Many believed her win was based largely on her ballot designation as a retired teacher.
    Ballot designations appear to make a big difference with voters. Many years ago, Susan Bonilla similarly surprised many people when she won a seat on the Concord City Council — beating out candidates that appeared to have more political clout. Her ballot designation was also a teacher, I believe.
    Even State Supt. Tom Torlakson faced a skirmish over his designation as a teacher on the ballot. Some opponents alleged he shouldn’t be able to claim that title, since he was only teaching a short course at Los Medanos College.