MSPEC Releases Statement on District's New Advisory Committee

Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee executive board writes a letter to the editor in response to the Millburn School District's recent actions.

At the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting the Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee (M-SPEC) showed up in protest of the new parent advisory committee for special education in the district.

Following the meeting, Superintendent Dr. James Crisfield responded to the organization's concerns to in the letter to the editor on Jan. 17.

The following is a letter to the editor from MSPEC's executive board, sent to Patch on Jan. 19, in response to the administration's recent actions:

We, as members of the Millburn-Short Hills community, are all rightfully proud of our school system and the quality of students it has produced for decades.  This is the singular reason that many of us have moved here; to raise our children in an environment that values education and a school system that promises to educate our children to the best of its abilities.  We have supported our schools and have paid the high taxes because of these assurances -even when it has proven to be a financial burden on many of the town's taxpayers.  Unfortunately, we recently have come to learn that our school system has failed the most vulnerable and neediest of our students, those in special education.

According to a recently publicized legal ruling that was lost by the Millburn School District, the court determined that Millburn had not provided a student with autism a free and appropriate education as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The summary of the case is:

  • In the 87-page decision, the court recounts a complete failure on the part of the Millburn Special Services Department. The court found Millburn failed to recognize the  child's obvious symptoms of autism and failed to provide her with appropriate autism services.
  • The District attempted to force the parents into agreeing to educate the child in a manner that lacked the minimum requirements needed to be effective and was contrary to the recognized standards of autism specialists.  There were multiple meetings with the District to develop an appropriate plan that would provide a meaningful education for the child.  The District failed to produce the plan. 
  • As result, the parents, like any other concerned parents, were left no choice but to  begin legal action against the District.  This was not a decision the parents made quickly or lightly. The court case took nearly 3 years to come to an end with countless hours spent by the parents, expert witnesses and Millburn District school personnel arguing their respective positions. 

What did this cost us?

The substantial amount of money spent on legal fees to defend the District’s actions would have been better spent on educating the students.  The burden of the District's poor judgment directly falls on all of us who pay school taxes in this community.

Currently, we collectively pay approximately $9 Million for the Special Education Program with over 143 professionals employed within the District to attend to our special needs children.  From the case findings, it appears that even with this substantial budget, some children are not being appropriately identified and classified and their education neglected.  That should be troubling to every resident.   

What did the District do?

Instead of investigating and correcting the deficiencies within the Special Education Department, Dr. Crisfield has chosen to unseat M-SPEC, the Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee.  He has decided to form a  new special education parent advisory group that will function under his control and auspices.  Selection of members of this new group is at Dr. Crisfield’s discretion.  This is not an independent group.

M-SPEC has been functioning as the District’s Special Education parent advisory group for 20 years as required by New Jersey law.  It is composed of parent volunteers from Millburn and has been charged with the role of informing the administration of any issues within the Special Education Department as well as a sounding board for parents with special needs children.  M-SPEC has successfully worked cooperatively with our former administrators in Millburn and has proven it to be a necessary and effective parent advisory group to protect the interests of the District and the children.

We find Dr. Crisfield's action to be capricious and retaliatory against M-SPEC, especially in light of this recent court ruling.  M-SPEC had made every effort to alert Dr. Crisfield and the Board of Education of any deficiencies on the part the Special Education Department in Millburn, but Dr. Crisfield had chosen to neither listen to the issues that M-SPEC was bringing to his attention nor would he even take the time to meet with M-SPEC.  Current Board of Education Vice President Rona Wenik had previously noted that M-SPEC is "a fantastic bridge to the administration" and past Board of Education President Michael Birnberg had stated "it's been helpful that M-SPEC has become more active. Now the school board and the administration knows of some of the issues."   Evidently, Dr. Crisfield prefers to just shoot the messenger-M-SPEC- rather than deal with the issues in a substantive and productive manner. 

Given the lack of attention by Dr. Crisfield to the Special Education programs, we are concerned the community may soon be faced with even more Special Education lawsuits.  The paradigm has not changed within the Special Education Department and problems that were identified by the recent case still exist.  It is tragic that the education of our special needs children are being used as political fodder by our school administration. While Dr. Crisfield may administer the District, we are the ones supporting the District through our tax dollars.

Ultimately, we will be the ones left holding the bag to pay for lost lawsuits and the District's hefty legal fees due to mismanagement on the part of the administration.  The irony is the administrators are left scot-free for their actions without the burden of the costs they incurred.  

Since Dr. Crisfield has acted to replace M-SPEC, an independent parent advocacy group, with a Special Education group under his control, we should all hold Dr. Crisfield and the Millburn School District Board of Education fully responsible for Special Education lawsuits initiated as result of Dr. Crisfield's changes. The Board of Education should be accountable for the integrity of the education of our special needs children.  


M-SPEC Executive Board

TJB January 18, 2013 at 08:27 PM
I couldn't agree more. It's incredibly simple- Dr. Crisfield chose not to work with M-Spec and its ELECTED board, but rather wants to handpick puppets.
bill January 18, 2013 at 10:03 PM
How incredibly childish. They are essentially saying that if the district does not give into their demands that their members will file lawsuits and cost us all a ton of money. These people should be ashamed of themselves. They are not doing anything at all to help the children in need by threatening the district like school yard bullies. It looks like the administration is right in feeling that this organization is no longer constructive, and that all of the district's children will be better served with another more rational voice at the table.
Bobby January 18, 2013 at 11:34 PM
Every school district has lawsuits periodically regarding special Ed students. Outside placements cost $40-$50 per year, over 13 years that is serious money. It would be preferable if litigation were not required, but sometimes it is. People disagree over the best education for their children. Special Ed parents can choose to sue if they feel strongly enough that the district proposal is inadequate. This case took 3 years to resolve? I guess the issue was not easily decided. (And began long before Dr. Cristfield's tenure) Our district needs to balance the needs of special Ed students, regular Ed students and the budget which comes from the taxes we all pay.
Hedley January 19, 2013 at 12:02 AM
So much for being an advisory organization as this self-serving piece makes clear.
Susan1 January 19, 2013 at 12:26 AM
How does a court case involving ONE student indicate a failure to educate all special needs students? How does the experience of one student imply that "some children are not being appropriately identified and classified and their education neglected?" That's a pretty broad leap. MSPEC used to be a useful group for parents and the administration. Now it has become an angry mob.
Sophie January 19, 2013 at 02:27 AM
Hi Susan1, I think I understand your point, but do you remember that lawsuit a couple of years ago where a guy found a dead mouse in his can of Monster Energy drink and sued the company? I don't know about you, but I threw out all my Monster Energy drinks the same day I heard about the case. If a mouse was in ONE can, then a mouse may be in other cans and I didn't want to be sucking down vermin along with my caffeine. If ONE child was "not being appropriately identified and classified" how can you be so sure that there aren't others?
Sophie January 19, 2013 at 09:57 AM
Hi Hedley, Merriam-Webster defines self-serving as "serving one's own interests often in disregard of the truth or the interests of others" I can understand that this is not in Dr. Crisfield's interests, but is there anything here that is not true? You have such a good understanding of these things and have a much better grasp of the situation than most of us do, maybe you can help us and identify what part(s) of this piece are self-serving?
KR January 19, 2013 at 02:23 PM
Sophie-I see your point as well, but I would like to think that every school district works very hard to meet the needs of its students. It is an imperfect system (find a public system that isn't), and some situations are more difficult to work through than others. If the parents and the administration work collaboratively and cooperatively to meet the needs of the children, then things don't usually get to the point of litigation. Every so often they unfortunately do, but I also do not think it is because of blatant disregard on anyone's part. I can not imagine any district would rather spend money on law suits when they could be spending money on their students.
Susan1 January 19, 2013 at 02:42 PM
Sophie, I agree that the situation clearly warrants investigation and I'm sure there are times when schools get it wrong. As a parent, I would want to make sure my kids get everything they need from their education. I guess my point was that the MSPEC letter makes it sound like educational failure is widespread. As far as this lawsuit, I would love to hear someone "in the know" explain how it is the school's job to recognize a child's symptoms. Isn't diagnosis a doctor's job?
Dick Tator January 19, 2013 at 03:46 PM
In April 2001, the State Board of Education adopted new rules to provide district boards of education with standards for the delivery of intervention and referral services (N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7, Intervention and Referral Services*).Establishment and Purposes of Intervention and Referral Services Pursuant to these regulations, district boards of education are required to: "… establish and implement a coordinated system in each school building for the planning and delivery of intervention and referral services that are designed to assist students who are experiencing learning, behavior, or health difficulties…" [N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.1(a)]; and which are designed to: "…assist staff who have difficulties in addressing students' learning, behavior, or health needs." [N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.1(a)] The regulations make it clear that I&RS activities should be focused on concerns with students, and that the end result of I&RS activities should be student improvement. It is equally important to note, however, that, an I&RS program must consist of a formal, coordinated and well-articulated system of supportive activities and services for staff who have identified student difficulties and those who will be involved in the amelioration of the identified educational concerns.
Bobby January 19, 2013 at 04:11 PM
Sophie, the special Ed department is not some assembly line spewing out millions of items per year. There is a team of professionals who evaluate a relatively small number of students for the educational services they require. Parents do not always agree with the recommendations. For the parent, their child is the most important in the world, but they only know their child. They do not know the hundreds of children that a Special Ed professional has known over the course of their career. The education programs provided for these children and the success or failure of various educational options. It is not unusual for districts to have multiple lawsuits pending at any one time. Millburn lost a case. I guess that means we are paying to send some kid to a $50k per year school. I hope we get our money's worth.
MarkDS January 19, 2013 at 08:11 PM
Who are the "electors" of the MSPEC board? I know of so many people who had been active in MSPEC who have run away from the organization because of the zealots and power-hungry people who have grabbed control of that group. The soap opera going on in there has not been pretty.
Sophie January 19, 2013 at 08:30 PM
Hi all, This is a great conversation, but before everyone comments on this issue it may be worth for all to first review the ruling from this case. It is very scary: https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B3joB8fMUD0MR0pjd1J2dk55RzA/edit?pli=1 Hi Bobby --- According to a story on NJ Spotlight, the settlement amount is over $500,000 in compensatory damages and that Millburn has been ordered to pay annual tuition of $113,000 per year for this child. It sounds like the child is very young, so we may be facing 10 or more years of paying tuition. http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/13/01/07/opinion-putting-a-price-on-special-education-will-promote-equal-access/ That's much more than the $50,000 tuition that you thought. I love Dr. Crisfield's weekly Miller Mail and his emails during the storm were excellent, but don't you think that something this important should have been included in Miller Mail? Don't we want to know all that is happening in our schools that may affect our children and our town?
Bobby January 21, 2013 at 02:51 AM
Wow, $113k per year? That is something like 10 times the average per pupil cost. While every child deserves an education, a 10x cost is just beyond what is rational. Princeton tuition is only $39K.
Marty Wilson January 23, 2013 at 03:38 PM
Just got an e-mail re: an Ed Foundation event with Crisfeld and Siegel - it is $100/person for a good topic - stress in school transitions (open to parents of kids in 5/8/12). why isn't this open to the public? why is it a ridiculous $100 (hoity toity food selection they say). do the people who go get special access to crisfeld and siegel once go to this event the same way special interest groups get special access to politicians? why can't m-spec run an event like this - or did they do something to 'upset' dr. c? maybe theirs can be $200. does anybody else see this as a slippery slope towards bribing, I mean contributing to our educators for access?
Know your rights January 23, 2013 at 04:14 PM
Susan and all - READ the NJ Admistrative Code, Section 6A, Chapter 14 Special Education. Every child must be tested in all areas of suspected disability. (NJAC 6A: 14-2.5(b)(3)) The Child Study Team must "review existing evaluation data on the student including evaluations and information provided by the parents, current classroom-based assessments and observations, and the observations of teachers and related services providers, and consider the need for any health appraisal or specialized medical evaluation." (N.J.A.C. 6A:14-3.4(a)(1)) Yes, CSTs are obligated to send a child for an evaluation should they suspect a particular issue.
KR January 23, 2013 at 10:10 PM
As I understand it, the EDFoundation is a fundraising organization for the school district, and they offer a variety of fundraising opportunities during the year. This is just one of many. These evenings with Dr. Crisfield have been done in the past as well. I do not see it as "bribing" for access. The district administration is available to families in the district at all times. This is just a fund raising event. Additionally, there have also been programs in the recent past to help families deal with transitions.
Sue Freivald January 27, 2013 at 01:08 AM
"More rational voice at the table?" There will be NO voice at the table, not from informed parents, anyway. Here's the thing--when the parents in the committee are picked by the administration and are run by the administration, then they are not a voice, they're just placeholders to fulfill a legal requirement. Regardless of what else one may think, WHY would a superintendent choose this type of placeholder-committee? What if a PTA was suddenly replaced with handpicked parents chosen by the principal? There would be an uproar, and PTA's aren't even supposed to be advisory! I might also add that there's no threat in the letter--you allege a threat, but fail to identify it.


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