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District D BoE candidates opine to Norwalk SpEd parents

From left, Republican Board of Education member Bryan Meek and his Democratic challenger, Erica DePalma.

The election is Nov. 5.

Updated, 11:30 p.m.: Additional video.

NORWALK, Conn. – This year’s Norwalk Board of Education candidates have expressed their views in front of an audience for the first time, at an event organized by SpEd Partners.

Questions were focused almost entirely on Special Education, with the one exception being the credentials for a new superintendent of schools. NancyOnNorwalk plans to present comments from all of the candidates; for starters, here’s the summary of the thoughts expressed by Bryan Meek, a Republican seeking reelection in District D, and his Democratic challenger Erica DePalma, along with some video so you can see them for yourself.

 

General qualifications

Meek, the father of three, who like them attended Cranbury School, is an accountant. “Besides that, I spent my 25-year career working on systems for hundreds of Fortune 500 companies to meet their external reporting requirements, the last 12 of which then software giant Oracle,” he said.

He has previously emphasized that he is the only Republican elected to “significant” office who is running for re-election, and emphasized that Norwalk needs members of both political parties in its government.

“I love Norwalk and I would like to continue my work on getting new schools built, hiring our next superintendent, and improving on our internal controls and financial management systems,” he said at the Sept. 23 event. “We live in a very diverse city with many interests, and we need all voices to be heard. I believe a balanced government brings out the best outcomes for all of us.”

DePalma said she’s the mother of two, one of them in general education and the other a special education student, who is also twice exceptional. She’s in the marketing technology field, which means that “I study human behavior. And I use data and technology to activate on that behavior to effectively deliver messages…. I feel like I’m uniquely positioned given that I have to have both the analytical and a critical thinking background to serve the community.”

 

Meeting the legal obligations for Special Education

Moderator Margaret Kozlark pointed out that Special Education is expensive, referred to Norwalk’s track record of CREC (Capitol Region Education Council) criticisms, and “systemic complaints at the State Department of Education.” She asked how Norwalk Public Schools would meet its obligations efficiently and effectively.

Meek said the number of children identified as needing specialized services has grown from about 3% of the student population in 2000 to 14% now. NPS was “underwater” but over the last three years used a $3.6 million special appropriation to address the CREC criticisms and bring down the cost curve on SpEd instead of cannibalizing other programs, he said.

“We did meet the thresholds that the state expects, and the systemic complaint was dismissed, although there were a handful of issues that they identified as ones that we needed to fix with some handling and stuff,” he said, although the education professionals have not used the word “dismissed” to characterize the outcome of the systemic complaint.

“Our goal is perfection. And that is a lofty goal. At the same time, we realize that we’re imperfect, and we have to keep improving upon the systems of internal control,” Meek said.

DePalma stressed “top down accountability” and suggested that the next superintendent should have a bonus structure tied to priority outcomes…specific to Special Ed, tied to compliance.

“I think that we’ve done the right thing in terms of putting the structure into place. But the follow through is where we’re lacking,” she said. “I’d like to see from a compliance perspective that all of our service providers are keeping logs of the hours, and that those hours are itemized at the Shared Services versus direct services level.”

 

A new superintendent

Kozlark asked what the top three things Norwalk should be looking for in a new superintendent.

Accountability is number one on the list, and the current board has achieved that through the strategic operating plan, Meek said. Longevity is also necessary because “we cannot have a revolving door at the superintendent level,” it sends a bad message to potential residents.

“Then last but not least in terms of three is somebody with a lot of experience and somebody with a lot of experience fighting the forces that tend to want to resist change,” he said. “And you know, people get scared of change. And it’s it’s a big part of, you know, some of the angst and, and upset, you know, you know, directed towards Board. But you know, what we were doing wasn’t working, it had to change.”

“The first thing I’m going to look for is a commitment to professional development,” DePalma said. “Because I study human behavior, I have this understanding that in the last 15 years a way that humans process information has changed more than the 570 years prior to that with the invention of the printing press.”

This means an unprecedent, profound gap is growing because children process information completely differently “than how our teachers learned to teach information,” mandating a “constant commitment to developing teachers skill sets,” she said.

“The second thing is to look for superintendent that has experience in closing the achievement gap in a very similar district,” she said. “And the third would be his prioritization or her prioritization on communication. I think a lot of places that we fall down is letting a lot of negativity run wild on social media. And I think there’s an opportunity with a superintendent who prioritizes positive and proactive communication to control that message and neutralize that message and make sure that we’re putting out a positive representation of Norwalk Public Schools, to our citizens into the surrounding districts that may be considering moving into our city.”

Better collaboration and communication?

Kozlark said that the creation of a new Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SPEDPAC) pack is intended to bring about better collaboration and communication between the Board of Education, NPS staff and families receiving specialized services. She asked the candidates how they’d like to see the collaboration evolve and what steps they’d commit to personally to ensure a better cooperation with stakeholders.

Meek stressed that the Board of Education’s important work is done at the Committee level and said the Ad Hoc Special Education Committee need to be made a permanent body. He also recounted learning that there he once asked who was in control of the Planning and Placement Team (PPT) process and learned that there was no chain of command. “That’s been fixed,” he said.

“My career in technology lends itself to experience and knowledge and automation and the use of artificial intelligence to cut down costs and to streamline communication,” DePalma said. Standardizing communication could involve apps like ClassDojo and Seesaw, said DePalma, who had described herself as trained in HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). “I’m partial to Seesaw because it is HIPAA compliant, it’s COPPA compliant.”

She also suggested that Facebook and Instagram could help organize parents and translation services could be used for parents in the PPT process.

“I think in general, a fresh start with the Board would also help open the communication lines in general,” DePalma said. “I think, you know, as a SpEd parent, I have often felt that the board makes me feel like I’m a burden to the general education students, when in reality, some of our nation’s most brilliant people are Special Ed students, that Steven Spielberg was dyslexic, and Steve Jobs was on the spectrum. So we are certainly not a burden, we need to find ways to make sure that we’re capitalizing on that intelligence and maximizing the potential of this subgroup and all the other subgroups access in the high needs bracket.”

8 comments

niz September 30, 2019 at 1:07 pm

First things first out of the estimated 1800 SpEd student in the NPS system, there are a handful of parent(s)/Guardian(s) that are constantly working with the schools and NPS SpEd staff to get the correct diagnosis for their SpEd kid(s)as well as a comprehensive IEP / service plan… DIRECT services, with certified/qualified staff that are trained especially for the specialized programs / services the SpEd student requires. I was present at this forum and really taken a back at how little the candidates actually know about the BOE role, they seek… there is a lot to learn, and few have that knowledge. Although their responses are sincere, expressing their interests and willingness to listen and learn, some even have an idea with a strategy … yet the elephant in the room, FUNDING is not mentioned (maybe it is not legal to do so) it is up to our mayor, district legislators to connect with the BOE team and get accurate information / data & figures to Majority Leader of the Connecticut Senate representing the 25th District, to go to the state and get the funding, property tax dollars will not cover it. with that said… Meek made an important point, need for new schools… he explained it well and I am not able to convey it correctly here. (Hope he chimes in to help me out, without dissing my comment too) Barbis the systemic complaint noted failing FAPE in NPS SPEd services district wide, please stop downplaying it. The Norwalk SpEd community want to work with you all. We are not interesting in the tit for tat crap that I see going on since I moved out here in 2015. The professionals that are accountable is the NPS Superintendent, and since 9/2017 Chief, Specialized Learning and Student Services. Yup, I stated it, they need to call on the BOE staff, district legislators and theMajority Leader of the Connecticut Senate representing the 25th District and make it known, we need a CHAMPION LEGISLATOR for the long time issues with SPED. Best to all the candidates and incumbants I have hope the BOE gets a great team in place and gets to work for all NPS students!!

Bryan Meek September 30, 2019 at 4:22 pm

@Niz.

Not to oversimplify it, but per guidance in GAS 34, government buildings are depreciated over 40 years. Certain component costs like kitchen fixtures much quicker, so this number bends lower. But let’s use the 40 year case. We have 20 schools. On average one would be fully depreciated every 2 years. This isn’t to say that we should necessarily build a new school every two years. Some maintenance makes sense to extend the life of an asset. Some doesn’t.

The past few boards realized we needed a strategy that recognizes that we are 100 plus year old city that is going to be around a lot longer than an election cycle. That’s why we have our school facilities master plan and an agreement to spend over $100 million on new additions, buildings, and repairs only where they make sense.

I only wish we were New Haven, which gets 80% of its projects paid for by the state. We get about 30% and this is the main reason why the last brand new school we built was NHS in 1971. It’s a big state with a lot of needs and to your point we need more advocacy from our state delegation in the name of fairness.

Mike Mushak October 1, 2019 at 1:00 am

“I think in general, a fresh start with the Board would also help open the communication lines in general,” DePalma said. “I think, you know, as a SpEd parent, I have often felt that the board makes me feel like I’m a burden to the general education students, when in reality, some of our nation’s most brilliant people are Special Ed students, that Steven Spielberg was dyslexic, and Steve Jobs was on the spectrum. So we are certainly not a burden, we need to find ways to make sure that we’re capitalizing on that intelligence and maximizing the potential of this subgroup and all the other subgroups access in the high needs bracket.”

That one sentence alone is enough to convince anyone that Erica DePalma deserves an opportunity to serve the Norwalk community on the BoE. Vote D in District D for DePalma!

Bryan Meek October 1, 2019 at 6:58 am

@Mushak. You missed the part where my opponent agreed with mine and the current board’s position that we need new schools. Are you going to viciously attack her if/when she tries to get new buildings built for our South Norwalk students that you are against? Thanks for not endorsing me. It means a lot.

John ONeill October 1, 2019 at 11:39 am

Quick question: ELL students will total approx. 2,100 this year. If I understand the story above Special Needs Children total 2,000. Should one assume that total ELL and Special Needs is 4,100 students? Are there some students that would be categorized as both? Hence, the aggregate would be smaller than 4,100? Can someone on this board forward this info??

April G. October 1, 2019 at 4:54 pm

Mike Mushak-agree wholeheartedly. Her experience in the field of technology also seems like a huge asset for our school district. Erica is very impressive!

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