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Frank Gruber

Making the Best of It

By Frank Gruber

The Santa Monica Malibu Unified School Board did the smart thing and the right thing at its meeting July 12, when the four members present all voted to accept the conditions the Santa Monica City Council placed on a discretionary increase of $530,000 in the amount the City Council pays to the School District under the City/District facilities agreement.

The Board also showed some initiative. The school administration's recommendation to the Board for what to do in response to the Council's conditions was positive (see story), but the only action the staff requested from the Board was to authorize staff to send a letter to the City "expressing a desire" to accept the money and the conditions, but asking for certain clarifications.

This is the kind of hair-splitting and impolitic thinking that has got the Board and the District in trouble in the past with both constituents and the City. As an example, here's the staff's first request for a clarification:

"It is stated in the language of section 2.a. of the document provided by the City Council to the District that the review 'will specifically explore viable alternatives to the District's recent practice of prohibiting parents from speaking to others about the special education services their children receive.' Given that Section 2.b. of the same document requests a moratorium on adding a confidentiality clause to any agreement made between the District and parents, staff wants to clarify that there is no other 'recent practice' where parents would be prohibited from speaking to others about the services received by their children. Further, the current use of confidentiality clauses within a Dispute Resolution Agreement would only relate to any service/s specific to the Agreement entered into by and between the Parent/s and the District."

Can you figure this out? If you can't, don't feel bad. I've been practicing law for 29 years and I'm still puzzling over that last sentence.

But in any case, what needs to be clarified about "explore viable alternatives to the District's recent practice of prohibiting parents from speaking to others about the special education services their children receive?" Who didn't understand what City Council meant by that?

I.e., figure out another way than telling parents not to talk about their settlements over their kids' education plans to protect your bargaining position vis-à-vis other parents.

And how would a letter to the City "clarify" if there are other "recent practices" that prohibit parents from speaking to others about their children's services; isn't that knowledge -- "clarity" -- the District staff is more likely to have than the City?

It's too bad; overall, the staff was recommending acceptance of the City's conditions, which have a lot of public support, but instead of making the District look "transparent," the new mantra, this paragraph and two others like it made the District staff look more querulous than gracious. As John Petz, a parent active in District affairs, told the Board, it all seemed "lawyered up."

But the staff did give the Board an opportunity to assert itself, and the Board did so. Maybe the Education God works in mysterious ways. After hearing from five members of the public, all of whom to one degree or another questioned the need for the clarifications, the four members of the Board who were present (Jose Escarce and Kelly Pye were absent and with the departure of Emily Bloomfield one seat is now vacant) all spoke of the need for the District to accept the City's conditions and get on with the independent review of the entire special education program.

Instead of authorizing the letter, the Board instructed the administration to return at the next meeting with a resolution implementing an immediate moratorium on confidentiality clauses, and took other actions to improve cooperation with the City.

Much of discussion at the meeting, from both the members of the public who spoke and among the Board members, concerned not the confidentiality clauses that provoked so much outrage at City Council meetings, but rather the process for choosing the "independent" experts who will review the District's special education program.

This is a topic that probably would not have consumed so much of the Board's time, and raised so many questions that now have to be answered, except that one of staff's "clarification" items sought a narrow interpretation of the word "independent," as if "independent" was a word that needs clarification.

As one of its conditions, the City Council had insisted that the consultants the District hired to conduct the review be "genuinely independent" of District officials. The meaning of this seems plain enough: the Council doesn't want the District to cook the results of the review by choosing reviewers who have the same views about special education as the Board or District staff. (A strategy, by the way, which many have accused the City Council of employing in the past.)

Suspicions were aroused when one of the clarifications staff requested was an "interpretation" that someone would be independent provided that he or she had neither been employed by the District nor had a personal relationship with a District official. Members of the public who spoke wanted to know how the Board would ensure that the reviewers themselves would be open-minded.

Tricia Crane, head of the Special Education District Advisory Committee and the most outspoken advocate for the rights of special ed children and their families, told the Board that she favored the convening of a committee, that would include the Superintendent as well as representatives of the P.T.A., the Special Education District Advisory Committee, Community for Excellent Public Schools and other interested parties, to choose the consultants.

Ultimately the Board asked the staff to return with an analysis of whether the District should issue a formal request for proposals or a request for qualifications to choose the consultants.

In other words, it now appears that we are going to have to have a process to determine the process.

I'll chime in on what I think "independent" means. This review will require consultants who have never heard of the Santa Monica Malibu School District, but who know everything else about special education.

I say that because while whoever conducts the review will have to immerse themselves in the facts and the history of the debacle known as our special education program, when it comes to making recommendations, they must avoid listening to the opinions of anyone who has been involved -- whether administrator or parent -- in it.

The atmosphere surrounding special education in our district is toxic. For years the District has been spending much more than other districts, yet there are many unhappy families, and much bitterness. Somewhere along the line, the District apparently thought that money would buy love, but it didn't work, and when facing enormous financial pressures, the District tried to control costs, it alienated affections wholesale.

Having talked to and heard from well meaning people on both sides, I can't blame anyone in particular, but then that means I blame them all by default. Is there someone out there who can tell us how to start over?

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