Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee (M-SPEC) members filled the Jan. 14 Millburn Board of Education meeting to protest a weekend letter from the district’s director of special services announcing the formation of a new parent advisory committee for special education.
The parents, whose children receive special education services, received a letter from Julianna Kusz, asking them to apply for the new committee.
Kusz’s letter explained the district was looking for those “interested in providing helpful constructive feedback regarding district programs and services.”
While at least a dozen members demanded answers why the district would need another organization to support families with a child that had learning challenges, a few were optimistic about it.
“M-SPEC has served the special education community and has been an integral part of this district community for over 20 years,” the organization’s current president, Laura Bencivenga, said. “Yet it seems the district’s special education department wants to eliminate M-SPEC as a parent advisory group.”
Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield explained the new advising board was required by state.
“We will select the members of the new parent advisory committee on a broad representation from each school and program,” he said. “It is not first-come, first-served, [but] there’s not going to be some criteria that we prescreen parents.”
Dissatisfied with Crisfield’s answer, several parents claimed the administration’s answer was not clear or transparent. The parents argued this new committee would allow the administration to hand-pick its members.
Bencivenga added, "The executive board was elected by parents. We are a voice for all parents, not just the ones that have been prescreened to sit on an advisory panel."
“We just have to go into a different direction with the advisory committee,” Crisfield said. He explained M-SPEC could still operate and submit feedback.
Natalie Hiott-Levine agreed with the administration and welcomed a new organization. She said M-SPEC was not trained for privacy issues that come with handling communications with specials needs students.
As an example, she said, M-SPEC had sent an email revealing private information to its almost 200-member email group.
M-SPEC accused the board of forming a new organization because it didn’t like what M-SPEC was saying. It argued its organization already fulfilled state requirements and another was unnecessary.
Bencivenga said the organization attempted to set up multiple meetings with the administration but the administration allegedly cancelled them, saying they had no plans to reschedule after the last cancelled meeting in November.
"The administration has not come to an M-SPEC meeting and they will not set a meeting with us," she said.
However, Sharon Cohen, a past executive member of M-SPEC said in the 2011-12 school year, the organization had a different relationship with the administration.
“Strangely enough we had an incredibly cooperative relationship with the district, open door policy,” Cohen said. “So maybe we should ask ourselves, what’s different this year than last year? What caused the relationship to breakdown? Maybe we should ask ourselves that before we cast stones at the board.”