The LookOut columns | What I Say

Frank Gruber

And there was light?

By Frank Gruber

Could it have been the lighting? It might have been coincidence, but the facts are that (1) the Santa Monica Malibu school board met last Thursday evening in the well-lit City Council Chambers in Santa Monica City Hall instead of their own gloomy board room at the District's headquarters and (2) the board members showed more initiative than they did two weeks when they first considered independent consultant Lou Barber's report on the District's special education program.

And the outlook wasn't brilliant going into the meeting.

That's because the "preliminary draft" (how tentative can we get?) response to the Barber report that Superintendent Dianne Talarico submitted to the board barely mentioned the most controversial aspect of the District's special education program, the settlement agreements it frequently uses to resolve disputes with parents, and said nothing about their two most controversial aspects: whether the parents should be bound by confidentiality clauses and whether the agreed-to programs for their children should be included in their legally-required individual education programs ("IEPs").

The least that Ms. Talarico might have said, and it would have been sufficient, was that those were two issues that were so complex that she didn't want to make a recommendation until she heard what the board had to say.

But that is not the direction ideas and policies typically flow in our district.

Ms. Talarico did, however, include in her draft response a call to "reorganize the central office," which people from the special education community I spoke to at the meeting took as code for removing special education from the purview of Deputy Superintendent Timothy Walker, the focus of so much of their ire. Mr. Walker is the architect of the confidential settlement agreement system that the special ed parents dislike intensely, and there were rumors flying around Thursday night that Ms. Talarico had already separated Mr. Walker from special ed.

I as write this on Sunday I haven't been able to confirm the truth of that, but given that the District has continued to enter into confidential settlement agreements notwithstanding the "moratorium" the Board adopted against them last year (in response to the conditions the City Council placed on about half a million dollars in funding), it may be convenient for the District to do (and announce) some of this "reorganizing" before Tuesday's council meeting.

That is because on Tuesday evening the council will consider whether the District has complied with the conditions.

It's true that the council did include a big loophole in the condition, namely that the District could include a confidentiality clause in a settlement agreement at the parents' request, but it's hard to believe that was genuinely the case given the large number of agreements entered into during the moratorium.

It's worth pointing out that it's not only the confidentiality clauses themselves that the parents object to, but also, as the Barber report makes clear, the effect the settlement agreements have on the whole process.

I don't doubt that Mr. Walker and the District's other special education administrators and the District's lawyers believe that settlements are preferable, for both sides, to the expense and uncertainty of "due process" administrative hearings or even litigation. But the parents feel, and Dr. Barber backed them up on this, that the settlement agreements have replaced not the higher-level due process arbitrations but rather the lower-level IEP process that is supposed to be collaborative.

It goes without saying that parents believe that Mr. Walker and his staff are guilty of hard bargaining.

I'm sure passions get high, but one doesn't have to ascribe blame for this to note that it's not only the parents who suffer; as Lou Barber pointed out, if agreed upon services are not included in IEPs -- which would be the case if the final decision resulted from due process procedures -- the local sites lose the ability to develop on-site programs. Local programs offer the District the only real chance of controlling costs.

Regardless how Ms. Talarico plans to handle the organizational issues, to give her credit she started her presentation to the board at the meeting last Thursday with an apology and a "pledge to enter a healing stage," and accepted full responsibility for the problems the district had had with special education. Given that these problems long pre-date Ms. Talarico's joining the District, this was generous.

Ms. Talarico's contrition set the tone for the evening. Although some parents of special needs children expressed their continuing anger with how the District's special education administrators have treated them, and others left no doubt, even as they thanked Ms. Talarico for her remarks and made constructive and pragmatic recommendations, that they were still wary about what the District might or might not do, the overall thrust of the parents' remarks was positive.

Throughout the more than three hour long hearing there were extraordinary statements of contrition, hope and goodwill. For one, Rebecca Kennerly, the PTA Council president, made a statement that eloquently -- and I write this as a parent of a "typical" child -- expressed the cluelessness that many of us have about the world of special needs students and their families. ("Extremely Troubling Words," April 21)

Santa Monica City Council Member Robert Holbrook recounted how he grew up as a special education student in the District, in the days before federal law required school districts to provide every child regardless of disability with a free and appropriate education. Then, he said, it wasn't so "complicated," but he recounted how he had been discouraged from considering college. With "loving help," however, he learned and went on to succeed in college and ultimately receive a doctorate.

Council Member Holbrook is a former member of the school board who last year took a tough stance toward the District's policies. At the meeting last week, however, he said that he appreciated Ms. Talarico's apology on behalf of the District and concluded his remarks with a conciliatory comment. The told the board that for him "it was a privilege to speak before you." This may augur well for the District at Tuesday's City Council hearing on the District's compliance with the conditions.

For their part, the board members were mostly conciliatory and contrite. They agreed that a change was needed in the "culture;" as board member José Escarce put it, from one of conflict to one of collaboration, from secrecy to transparency, and from marginalization to inclusiveness.

Based mostly on proposals by board members Kelly Pye and Maria Leon-Vazquez, the board directed Ms. Talarico to continue the moratorium on secret settlement agreements, but with strengthened procedures against the confidentiality clauses, to come back to the board with suggestions for how to include the substantive provisions of settlement agreements in IEPs, and to reorganize the central office and the special education department with the objective of devolving more decision-making authority to local schools, with alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediators, in place.

The board also directed Ms. Talarico come back with a more thorough response to the Barber report, one that would include a new look at the previously ignored strategic plan developed a few years ago for the District by the Special Education District Advisory Committee.

I'm probably not the person to give advice to the special ed parents when they appear before the council Tuesday, since I opposed the council's involving itself in the board's business last year. Even though it looks like the independent consultant's report the council required has had a good result, I continue to believe that the council has enough on its own agenda to keep it busy.

So parents may not care to listen to me, but my advice is to declare victory (in the battle if not the war) and tell the council to release the money to the District. The voters of Santa Monica recently reiterated their faith in the District by overwhelmingly approving the parcel tax, and it's now time to see if the board and Ms. Talarico can clean up this mess on their own. If they don't do anything, there will be opportunities in the future -- i.e., more discretionary funding -- to complain again to the City Council.

* * *

The seductions of the national presidential campaign and the complexities of special education have caused me over the past couple of months to neglect the bread and butter of this column -- the actions and policies of the City of Santa Monica.

In particular, I have failed to comment on a fascinating issue that the City Council will also consider Tuesday evening. The issue is whether to allow a homeowner in the Third Street Neighborhood Historic District to build a contemporary addition to a rear building on his property.

I have attended two meetings at the Landmarks Commission where this project (located at 2617 Third Street) was discussed, including the meeting in January where the project failed to be approved when it received the votes of only three of the only five commissioners were present or who could vote on the project without conflict of interest.

I don't have room in his column now to go into all the deep issues I expected to discuss about historic preservation and how contemporary architecture might or might not fit into it, but it seems to me that the proper fate for this project is to be approved, if only (but not necessarily only) for reasons commissioner John Berley expressed at the January meeting of the commission.

Mr. Berley pointed out that standards in historic districts could not be rigid, because that would discourage people from accepting landmark status for their properties or approving historic districts. In the case of this project, he said that he probably would not support it if it were in the front of the property, on the street. He voted to approve, however, because the addition would be barely visible 93 feet back from the street, and thus not compromise the integrity of the district.
That makes sense to me.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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