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