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M-SPEC Protests New Parent Advisory Committee for Special Ed

The formation of a new parents advisory committee for special education throughout the district spurred a strong reaction from Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee at Monday night's Board of Education Meeting.

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.”

dana lustbader January 15, 2013 at 07:12 PM
I was sadly reminded last night of the reasons not to attend a BOE meeting. I left last night feeling sick to my stomach as I watched one board member roll his eyes, make numerous disrespectful facial gestures and speak in a demeaning tone of voice to another board member as she spoke of her visits to local schools. I watched as our superintendent avoided eye contact and numerous requests from parents to be truthful about his reasons for disregarding the existing M-SPEC group and create a new "hand picked" parent advisory group for the administration. I watched as the majority of board members, with the exception of 2 sat silently as parents pleaded to be heard with regard to programs, teaching and support for special education students. It hardly feels as if our BOE meetings are a place where voices of concerned parents matter.
sumukha January 15, 2013 at 08:39 PM
I am quite disappointed with the demeanor of some of the BOE members. The rolling of the eyes and the non-inclusion of a key member of the special ed committee while making such important decision goes to prove that the needs of the community is the least of their concern. The body language of the superintendent was a repeat from the last budget listening session held on Nov 15th. No eye contact, and posture gives away the disdain he has of parents who question or gives feedback to the district. I am hoping there is transparency in selecting the new parent advisory board if that is the course they take. There was one board member whom i shall refrain from naming also used abusive language towards one parent (both part of the audience) during the M-Spec sponsored public forum before the elections. Such incivility in public space is distasteful. Does not set good examples for our kids.
sumukha January 15, 2013 at 08:41 PM
I wish to add a few more words, I am also surprised that the past M-Spec board members were quite critical about the current executive board and seem to glorify their own attachments with out noting the big strides that M-Spec has taken. The community need to come together and not divide among themselves pitting parents against parents. In no way they can influence the school or the BOE like this. Instead of being part of M-Spec they choose to alienate themselves. The old board even alienated their own predecessor when they took over in 2012. We all need some soul searching here, be more inclusive, keeping the new demographics of this community in mind.
sumukha January 15, 2013 at 08:43 PM
small correction, "when they took over in 2011".
sumukha January 15, 2013 at 09:09 PM
another correction- ,its " Achievements" and not attachments. This is what happends when one types passionately.
Dick Tator January 16, 2013 at 03:01 AM
What comprehensive reporting. The audience member who pointed out this whole thing is part of a pattern...if they don't like it or what they have to say, just get rid of it. Foreign language program teachers dumped for Rosetta Stone, board committee altered so that board members aren't allowed to talk directly with students, MSPEC dumped on the heels of losing a major lawsuit for an "insiders" group sure to give "helpful" input.
Dick Tator January 16, 2013 at 03:06 AM
No report on what those dozen audience members had to say for 2 hours or ore, but the minority of two from the former executive of MSPEC got full quotes. Hmmm...
Dazed not Confused January 16, 2013 at 03:23 AM
Looks like some of the board members are practicing for a run for congress. Shameful. For a good role model they might look at some of the clubs & teams @ MHS, most of which are managed fairly, respectfully and effectively by student leaders collaborating with teacher advisors.
TJB January 16, 2013 at 07:47 PM
You are correct in pretty much everything you wrote. What the past members of M-Spec and the district are forgetting... the children. Ms. Kusz' letter was arrogant and offensive. Dr. Crisfield's defense of it was even more appalling. Pure politics here= if you don't like a political partner, don't reach across the aisle, but just handpick a successor partner and ignore an ELECTED M-Spec Board. Ms. Kusz/Dr. Crisfield- your arrogant disregard of the parents on the M-Spec board who have donated years to better this district is distasteful. Old School Politics. Thanks for not thinking of our children.
Renay Zamloot January 16, 2013 at 07:50 PM
M-SPEC has collaboratively served the Millburn Township Public School District for more than 20 years. Working in conjunction with school district administrators and other community leaders, M-SPEC has developed and implemented numerous parent, community and student education and support programs that are highly regarded throughout the state. What a shame that a few attention-seeking and self-serving individuals would be heard above the multitude of families who continue to benefit from the excellent programs and services provided by M-SPEC. It is important to recognize that M-SPEC is comprised of volunteers who, themselves, have children with disabilities. These amazing parents devote countless hours of their time to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable among our student population are understood and supported. The Board of Education and Administration should be celebrating the impressive accomplishments of M-SPEC and thanking its members for their outstanding contributions to the community - rather than wasting time attacking and attempting to disband an important and long-standing District Committee. All of the time, money and energy spent on providing character education and anti-bullying programs to our students will be wasted if the Board of Education and School District Administration do not lead by example!
KR January 16, 2013 at 09:40 PM
I do not believe MSPEC is being disbanded. That is not at all what Dr. Crisfield said during the meeting. He did say that the district was going in a different direction, and that MSPEC was still welcome to offer input.
Renay Zamloot January 17, 2013 at 02:15 AM
Disbanded or Disempowered? There is no reason for the District to "go in another direction" when M-SPEC has been "providing helpful constructive feedback regarding district programs and services" for more than 20 years. And, while the Superintendent did not overtly state that the District was attempting to disband M-SPEC, the administration has been refusing to meet with M-SPEC for months. Additionally, Dr. Crisfield stated that there would be some sort of selection process for the new advisory committee without providing any details. Finally, Dr. Crisfield stated that the "new advising board was required by state [sic]." This state regulation has been in effect for several years now and M-SPEC has been fulfilling this state requirement since the law was enacted.
KR January 17, 2013 at 02:29 PM
I am wondering about the comments regarding foreign language. While using Rosetta Stone is not ideal by any means, when there are significant budget constraints, cuts do have to be made. Rosetta Stone does allow the district to offer some instruction (again, not ideal) in foreign language. The year this cut was made, there were many other cuts made as well. Additionally, MSPEC hasn't been "dumped" as you say. Another avenue for input is being put into place, hopefully with even more insights to share with the district. Special Education is a very emotional topic for many people, and it is understandable. I would think getting as much input into how the community is feeling would be a good thing.
KR January 17, 2013 at 07:38 PM
What "power" is being taken away? As I understand it, an advisory group is supposed to offer input, not wield power, and this will still be possible. In fact it seems there will be more ways to offer input, and that sounds like a good idea to me.
JGF January 17, 2013 at 08:47 PM
I think that you hit the nail on the head. It is shameful. This is not a respectful or fair group. Did you read the Item's editorial in NOvember about the candidate forum. The Item never takes side and they took mspec to task. There are reasons why this is happening after years and years of cooperation.
Richard Tepper, MD FACS January 18, 2013 at 04:14 PM
I read with interest the comments of Superintendent Crisfield, as Millburn plans to set up a separate parent advisory group apart from M-SPEC. My interest stems from the fact that I am a Livingston resident and Dr. Crisfield appears to have an interest in modeling Livingston's SEPAC. Despite the hard work of many on the committee, as a parent and resident, I still can't say clearly whether this is an "excellent process" yet, as the superintendent states. It certainly is a good beginning, but as with everything else, effective leadership makes all the difference. If I understood Dr. Crisfield's comment correctly, the reason for a separate parent advisory group was that that M-SPEC couldn't be considered an "independent" group. He points to their "advocacy" efforts. By that same reasoning, a district-controlled committee cannot be considered an independent entity either. A balance must be reached.
Richard Tepper, MD FACS January 18, 2013 at 04:14 PM
Since many school districts historically have failed to advocate for our children with special needs any where near the level that districts promote educational advancement for honors and advanced placement students, who else is left to advocate for these wonderful kids but us, the parents. On paper, Livingston's SEPAC may appear "balanced" and "independent" to some, with various means of member selection. However, in reality, the fact that my own "nomination" by the LIvingston High School HSA was blocked by our assistant superintendent says something very different. I hope Millburn can find the perfect balance such that special education can advance and prosper to the same extent as all other children.
MarkDS January 18, 2013 at 04:57 PM
Note that "MSPEC and Winston School Co-Host ADHD Seminar". They are clearly working together to get students into those schools on the tax payers dime. They are not a neutral party.
Rosa January 18, 2013 at 05:51 PM
I can't help but continue to think that a clean slate with fresh new people with no history is a good thing.
LPB January 18, 2013 at 07:13 PM
From Laura Bencivenga- I do want to clear up this statement from Mark DS. In fact, I approached Dr. Crisfield to host the Dr. Hallowell event on Feb 7. I sent him multiple emails with no response. I left a voice mail message & Dr. Crisfield did not respond. In early Sept, Dr. Crisfield told me all M-SPEC meetings are limited to the Ed Center & since we wanted to use MHS, I was complying with his request and working through him. How could I get his permission if he would not reply? I reached out to Dr. Miron who said the space was available and M-SPEC could use. When I sent an email to him and Dr. Crisfield thanking them, Dr. Crisfield's response was "there must be some confusion, nothing is reserved or confirmed" . I again contacted him & suggested we meet to discuss any concerns he had. Finally he responded & said was he was "too busy". So, every effort was made to have the event at MHS & I am disappointed that Dr. Crisfield's personal issues with me or with M-SPEC deprived this community of hosting a leading expert on ADHD. Please MarkDS, unless you know the facts, don't comment. Every effort was made to have this event at MHS and it was ONLY because Dr. Crisfield would not work to resolve this with me, that we approached Winston School who gladly agreed to host this event. In spite of your insinuations, MSPEC is not looking to get students into other schools or suggesting parents sue. That could not be further from the truth.
MarkDS January 18, 2013 at 07:52 PM
Since it is being held at Christ Church not at the Winston School you could have arranged it without the involvement of a private school trolling for tax-dollar funded students. (Yes I changed by user name. Wanted to align it with the one I use elsewhere)
dana lustbader January 18, 2013 at 10:19 PM
Dear Zoinks, You seem to know very little yet speak with a sharp tongue. Winston School is a school for students with learning disabilities and shares a facility with Christ Church; it is their assembly space where many well known, professional speakers have provided parent education for hundreds reaching far outside of Millburn. What Mspec and Winston have in common is to provide insight about disabilities that affect families each and every day, in this case, ADHD. As for your concern about your tax dollars being used for special education send outs, trust me, Millburn does not comply with this theory, for the many whom need it most and whom they can not serve. In fact, our tax dollars, along with dozens of other families, do nothing for our children because appropriate reading remediation programs, support programs and teacher training are not in place. Most of us have no choice than to send our children out of district for help at our own expense and stay in town not to uproot our families. These are emotionally painful and financial decisions that you have not considered. So Mr. "Zoinks", you get the benefit of our tax dollars and many get a dismissive, callous administration.
ChristinaE January 19, 2013 at 02:58 AM
That's not true. I have children with language based learning disorders and they are both doing very well.
NDS January 20, 2013 at 09:08 PM
That IS true, for my child with a reading disorder. The system serves some and does not serve others. To what extent? We don't know. Should we know? Should even a single child from any district pay for the rest of her life for failures, some of which may be systemic, of the system her parents entrust their child to be educated? We need a parent-driven voice for ALL our children. MSPEC is well-established, widely respected and parent-driven. Its leaders were voted in. Would Hartshorn, Deerfield, Glenwood, South Mountain or Wyoming's PTO tolerate being ignored by administrators? They fundraise and give input to the schools on all matters of concern. This is unacceptable interference by the administration. It is in no way in keeping wtih the spirit of the statute. The alternative group whose membership is to be selected by the Director of Special Services is a nonsense. It is not what intended in any way by the policymakers of the code - NJAC 6A:14-1.2(h).
MarkDS January 21, 2013 at 07:06 PM
The "in" group in MSPEC has driven away so many people in recent years the "vote" is in no way representative of anything except for the self-dealing individuals who have taken over MSPEC.
M OKeef January 22, 2013 at 03:15 AM
Who votes for MSPEC members?

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