Withholds School Funding at District’s Request
By Jorge Casuso
April 23 -- Concerned some parents may have been “coerced”
into signing confidentially clauses in their special education agreements,
District officials asked the City Council Tuesday to withhold some
$500,000 in funding until the allegations are investigated and reforms
approved by the School Board.
Schools Supt. Dianne Talarico told the council -- which saw two of its members
cry and another grow angry -- she had heard through “the rumor mill”
that some of the parents who signed confidentiality clauses in 28 of the 37
agreements entered into this year said they “felt coerced.”
“I ask that the council hold the funds for an additional 30 days until
I can make recommendations to the board,” said Talarico, adding that she
also wanted time to speak to the parents who made the allegations.
The District, she said, was willing to lift the confidentiality clauses at
the parents’ request. She also is considering recommending that the District
bring in third party mediators to help during negotiations with parents to determine
what services their children need.
But council members were skeptical District officials would embark on the serious
changes needed to radically alter a “culture of fear” that has left
special ed parents ashamed, frustrated and powerless to help the sons and daughters
with disabilities who are left behind.
“I’m not convinced that she’s going to do something in 30
days,” said Mayor Herb Katz, who was the parent of two special ed students.
“She hasn’t done anything yet.”
Council members said they were shocked to learn the confidentiality clauses
remained in the agreements after the School Board had imposed a moratorium to
signal to the council that the policy -- which council members worried resulted
in a lack of “transparency” -- had changed.
“One of the largest problems you have,” Katz told the superintendent,
“is they (parents) don’t trust you, and they don’t trust your
staff. What are you going to do about it?
“These people are scared,” Katz said. “That’s why they’re
coming to us, and they shouldn’t be coming to us. When we talked about
this, we said no confidentiality agreements. We said none. . . It’s not
transparent and shouldn’t happen in Santa Monica.”
“This was a bit of a shock,” said Council member Bobby Shriver,
referring to parents who complained they had been coerced. “I was stunned.”
Shriver then tried to get Talarico to say she would take extreme disciplinary
measures if she found that staff had lied when they assured her the parents
had requested the confidentiality clauses.
“If you found some were coerced, what would you do?” Shriver asked.
“There’s progressive discipline,” Talarico said. “”I
can’t go into further detail. It’s a personnel matter. I can’t
do that right now.”
“What kind of matter would you call that?”
“If I could prove they would tell me untruths, there would be consequences,”
“I would consider it the most serious matter that would require the most
extreme consequences,” Shriver said. “But you don’t agree
“I don’t disagree with you, either,” Talarico said.
To change the culture, Shriver said, you need to say that “lying is an
extremely serious matter.”
“Lying is an extremely serious matter,” Talarico said.
But Talarico warned that that changing the district’s culture would take
“The culture didn’t get where it is overnight, and
it won’t change overnight,” she told the council, noting
that it took one California district eight years to change.
“It’s a top priority for me creating a culture where
they (parents) feel safe. There are organizational changes on the
horizon that might send" the right message.
Council members were taken aback by the superintendent’s statement.
“That it will take years to change the culture is categorically outrageous,”
Shriver said he was glad his mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the
Special Olympics, wasn’t at the meeting.
“She would have lost it,” he said, “really lost it.”
Shriver wasn’t the only council member who became emotional. Both Katz
and Council member Pam O’Connor cried.
“It’s about the children,” said O’Connor,
who said she felt vindicated after coming under fire from parents
for threatening to withhold funding until changes were made.
“That’s the bottom line here that we have to keep in
focus,” O’Connor said. “We can’t point blame,
but we have to keep our eye on the ball.”
O’Connor said she was surprised when Talrico told the council she might
not be able to stay for all of the testimony from parents because, “I
have oodles of work to do.”
“I wouldn’t have said” that, O’Connor said. “I
would have said, ‘I will say here until the last speaker speaks.’
I would have said, ‘Lying will not be tolerated.’”
Tuesday’s council meeting came after the School Board last week took
up a series of recommendations to reform the District’s Special Education
program that included using settlement agreements only as “a last resort.”
The recommendations were in response to an independent report that vindicated
longstanding complaints by special ed parents that the District’s practice
has forced them to bargain for their children’s education behind closed
doors, then barred them from disclosing the terms.
According to the report by Lou Barber & Associates, the District had entered
into 140 settlement agreements with parents over the past three years, compared
to few if any for most California districts, a number that “needs to be
Consultants found that the confidentiality clauses make it difficult to evaluate
a student’s progress and make placing students transferring to another
district more difficult. The policy, consultants said, also breeds distrust.
Talarico’s three-page “Preliminary Draft Response” listed,
among other recommended actions, “creating a culture of inclusion,”
recruiting and developing highly qualified staff and providing “early
intervention to struggling students.”
The recommendations also included improving fiscal management by conducting
quarterly reviews of the special education program and hiring a
consultant to determine the district’s capacity to provide