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SpEd Parents Angered By E-Mails, Relationship With O'Connor, School Committee Remains Strained

Aug 04, 2015 11:08PM ● Published by Bill Gilman

Special Education parent and former School Committee member Lisa Puccia speaks during the Citizens' Forum portion of the July 15 School Committee meeting.

The State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has issued an order for Tewksbury School District administrators and staff to undergo new procedural training as a result of private information pertaining to Special Education students being leaked to the public earlier this year.
However, this decision has done little to cool the anger of some SpEd parents, who believe the school committee and administration have been dismissive of their concerns and disrespectful to them personally.
Erin Knyff, who has two children receiving special education services, including one out-of-district placement, was outraged at the contents of emails obtained in June by Tewksbury Attorney Cheryl Garrity through a Public Records Request. The emails include communications between Superintendent of Schools John O'Connor and members of the Tewksbury School Committee, regarding the private information leak. They also touch on other school department business.
Knyff says comments contained in the emails show that the school district as a whole, and O'Connor in particular, consider special education students to be a burden on the district.
In a weekly update email to school committee members, dated Jan. 8, 2015, O'Connor writes of a brief meeting with Rick Pelletier, director of Student Services, which includes Special Education.
"When Rick Pelletier enters my office, he is usually bearing bad news," wrote O'Connor. "Friday afternoon he walked in with a huge smile and I was expecting the worse (sic). Instead he tells me an OOD (Out-Of-District placement SpEd student) is moving to Plymouth next week. The $70K tuition will be coming off our books!"
In an email written by School Committee Chairman Krissy Polimeno and dated April 13, 2015, and sent to the three other members of the committee, as well as O'Connor, Polimeno comments on an article on Your Tewksbury Today, in which SpEd parent Lisa Puccia discusses her resignation from the school committee and her allegations of ethics violations by O'Connor and the committee.
"This is ridiculous ... Read this article ... It is clearly all about her," wrote Polimeno.

In another email, O'Connor writes to Polimeno and Assistant Superintendent Brenda Regan about a meeting posting by the SpEd PAC. The posting said the meeting would be focused on discussing changes being made by the school district to Special Education services provided to students in general "inclusion" classrooms. The PAC describes the new model as being "SIGNIFICANTLY different" than the old model.
"I guess this is what the SPED PAC calls "working together ..." This is TEAMWORK?" wrote O'Connor.
"As for the emails, their unprofessional nature speaks for themselves," said Knyff. "The one that bothers me the most is the excitement of Mr. Pelletier  and Dr. O'Connor when and OOD student moves out of town. How hurtful is that. So I guess if Liam moved they would have quite the celebration? Again mean spirited and cruel. These are the people who have been elected and hired to teach our children. It makes you wonder."
The rift between the SpEd parents and O'Connor dates back to January, when the superintendent sent out a notification, stating that plans to offer free, all-day kindergarten in 2015-16 were being scrapped. He cited a $2 million budget shortfall caused, in large part, by a sharp increase in Special Education costs due to an unusually high number of out-of-district placement students moving into Tewksbury.
Knyff and other parents were furious and felt their children were being singled out as "a problem" for the district and were responsible for killing all-day, free kindergarten. O'Connor apologized publicly and said it was poorly chosen language on his part.
The relationship soured further in March when it was revealed that a document featuring personal information for 83 out-of-district placement students had been inadvertently published online. Moreover, it included individual ratings for parents based on how "difficult" they were for the district to work with.
The document, intended as a piece of budget shortfall information for the Finance Committee, was included as part of the information packet for the March 24 School Committee meeting. It remained online for several days before the error was discovered and it was removed.
Knyff and other parents said that although names were not included, it was easy to identify students from the information provided. For that reason, she filed a complaint with the 
State's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. On June 29, the DESE responded with a ruling ordering the new training for the administration and staff. According to the ruling, training must take place at or before the start of the 2015-16 school year.
Puccia, whose child was one of the 83 OOD placement students included in the leaked information, and who resigned her seat on the School Committee as a result, spoke about the 
DESE ruling during the citizens' forum portion of the July 15 committee meeting. She said she was disappointed in how this entire matter had been handled and was being handled by the superintendent and the school committee.
"Dr. O'Connor, as a parent whose child's information was contained on that list, my husband and I have read and re-read the letters you have sent out to parents on how the district is handling the matter ... and they've been really less than apathetic," said Puccia. "When I sat on the school committee a few months back, I was less than impressed with your lack of attention to the matter as a whole, your written explanation as to what had happened and moreso lack of response from my colleagues on the school committee."
"I would just like to point out that this situation, in its entirety, is not 'ridiculous' and it's not 'all about me,'" she added, alluding to Polimeno's email comments about the Your Tewksbury Today story.
Later in that same meeting, members of the school committee reacted to the ruling at their July meeting.
"I just want to say that I think this letter from the DESE is an important validation to the (83) parents on that list, particularly to some communications sent out by this administration, by you, Mrs. Regan, that said there weren't any violations of privacy," said Jayne Miller, Puccia's replacement on the committee. "I think it starts a conversation in our district, a very important conversation, about securing student and parent data."
Miller encouraged O'Connor and Pelletier to push ahead with plans for town-hall type meetings with parents at each school in the district to build rapport and improve lines of communication.
"I think that rebuilding trust in this community is extremely important. Particularly with all parents of children with special needs."
Polimeno said she viewed the letter as a "positive" that gives administration, staff and even school committee members a chance to enhance their training and knowledge in the area of student privacy.
"I think it's important that our entire staff gets this training," she said. "I was happy to hear that they also extended the invitation to the school committee. I would love to see those dates (of the training) and hopefully at the very least, a few of us could attend the training being offered so we could have a better understanding of some of the problems that we faced."
Polimeno added that she was confident O'Connor would follow through with the training and recommendations that will ensure the district remains compliant with privacy rules moving forward. She also expressed support for the series of meetings with parents as a critical step in building and rebuilding relationships.
"I think it's extremely important that we communicate with all of our parents and that we hear some of the concerns out there," she said. "We want everyone to be part of the solution. Sometimes it's difficult, when emotions run high and so forth, but we do want to work with the community. We do want to work with all parents. And we do want to hear what are some of the suggestions or solutions to some of the issues that may be surrounding the district."
Emotions running high has, indeed, been a hurdle in bridging the gap between the school committee and the SpEd parents. Tensions ran very high earlier this year, when Miller was selected to replace Puccia on the School Committee in a joint meeting of the committee and the Board of Selectmen. On the third ballot, Miller was elected, 5-4, with all five selectmen voting for her. However, it was clear that the school committee preferred Arthy Bennett, casting all four of their votes for her on all three ballots.
Knyff alleges that following the meeting, committee member Jamie Cutelis told her, "
I hope you and your Special Education friends are happy, you have brought your negativity on the school committee.”  
Later, Knyff says she texted committee member Brian Dick, with whom she had clashed earlier in the year over the information leak and how SpEd students and parents were being treated in general. She said she thought the two had mended fences and was reaching out in the hope of rebuilding the professional relationship.
However, according to Knyff, she was accidentally included in a group text Dick sent to other committee member in which he called Knyff "pathetic" and said she “thought it was all about her."
Knyff says the text has left a bitter taste in her mouth.
"I'm truly disappointed that after having given Mr. Dick the benefit of hearing him out and thinking that we had come to understand one another that he would call me pathetic. I found that very cruel and unnecessary," she said. "Schools, including Tewksbury, are saying zero tolerance for bullying. What is our school committee, our superintendent, and the special ed director doing? Look at those emails read those texts. If it's not bullying what is it? How can these people be teaching our children tolerance kindness when they themselves don't practice it?"
Brian Dick declined to comment on the text.
School Committee members were not the only ones displeased with the results of the vote. The Lowell Sun ran an editorial, entitled "Cloud of Conflict", outlining what they viewed as problems with Miller maintaining her position as editor of the Town Crier, while serving on the School Committee. According to email records obtained by Garrity, school officials agreed.
In an email to O'Connor and Regan, dated May 22, Polimeno wrote:
 "John & Brenda, check out this editorial. Whoever wrote it -- bravo!
To which Regan replied:
"YES ... BRAVO! Thanks, I hadn't seen this."

The problems between the SpEd parents and the school district came full circle in May, when O'Connor broached the issue of increasing the pay of certain administrators to bring them, in O'Connor's words, "in line" with salaries of similar positions in other districts. In an email to all members of the committee, dated May 3 and obtained by Garrity, O'Connor wrote:
"With your permission, I would like to rewrite the contracts for Brenda (Regan), Sheri (Matthews) and Rick (Pelletier) to include a step and merit increase for the 2016/17 school year. Their salaries are budgeted for next year at a 2.5 percent increase. To add the step and merit increase means we would have to scramble to find the money. I would like to give each the opportunity to define one or two meaningful goals that if completed would lead to a merit increase a year from now. That wuld (sic) bring all admin contracts in line with the exception of Angie and John Weir. When their current agreements expire we will look at doing something for the two of them. This will be discussed at our next meeting."

O'Connor's proposal was approved by the committee at a subsequent meeting.
SpEd parents have voiced displeasure at the committee's willingness to "scramble to find the money" for step and merit pay increases for the three administrators, as well as voting O'Connor a 2.5 percent pay raise. while being unable to find the $700,000 to fund the free, all-day kindergarten program and trying to close a $2 million budget shortfall. These are fiscal problems they feel O'Connor blamed squarely on special education costs in general and out-of-district placements in particular.
In her comments at the July 15 meeting, Puccia addressed a letter sent home to SpEd parents by O'Connor, outlining goals for the upcoming school year he feels will make for a more positive educational experience for Special Education students. One goal is to have SpEd students taught in an "inclusive setting" during the school day. The second is to create an environment in all the schools which provides SpEd students with a sense of ownership and complete participation. He added that he was committed to providing all Tewksbury students with a "world class education."
"The inclusion model you're talking about will also cost money," said Puccia. As a parent but also a taxpayer, I'm concerned with your goals."
Puccia pointed out that moments before the committee approved a pay increase for O'Connor and and O'Connor announced merit and step increases for the administrators, O'Connor had said the district needed to hire, but was having difficulty finding the money for, an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher.
"Again, as a parent, and more important, a taxpayer, I do not find this fiscally responsible," said Puccia. "I don't know where we're going to get the additional funding to provide this 'world class education' when we can't find the funding to hire an ELL teacher."
(Editor's note: Polimeno and O'Connor did not reply to requests for comments for this article.)
 

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