Former Darien administrator Carleen Wood comes to Greenwich

Carleen Wood

Carleen Wood

A special education administrator who had been employed in Darien during the year that district broke state and federal special education laws has now taken a similar job in Greenwich.

The hiring of Carleen Wood, who began work on July 31, was trumpeted by the district last month. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie noted her 27 years of experience in education, including several in Greenwich, as well as her extensive teaching and administrative work in special education.

“We are excited to welcome Carleen Wood back to the Greenwich Public Schools. Her colleagues in Darien are reluctant to see her go, and for good reason,” Dr. McKersie said in the release announcing the hiring. “Ms. Wood is an experienced special educator and has a deep understanding of the many facets of the program, including statutes and legislation, instructional models and strategies for diverse learners, managing the demands on staff, and supporting students and parents throughout the process.”

However, the Darien Public Schools have come under heavy criticism for its treatment of special education students. While Ms. Wood served as assistant director of secondary special education in Darien, the district was found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by creating a program designed to restrict, reduce and remove educational services to children with disabilities to save money, according to a two-part state investigation and a $196,000 independent probe.

No employees have been terminated or faced any penalties as a result of the findings. It also remains unclear how many children may have been harmed as a result of the illegal program, despite an ongoing effort to determine the number.

At an arbitration hearing earlier this year to determine if administrators would be given a two percent raise after the previous year’s problems, Ms. Wood said that she wanted to stay in Darien and help restore the trust of the community and “be part of moving forward.” In late February, the panel voted against the raise. By April, Ms. Wood had requested letters of recommendation, and by May, she had sent her letter to Greenwich, inquiring about an open position.

In her employment application obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Ms. Wood notes that she’s leaving because of an “opportunity for change.” She took a $2,000 pay cut to work in Greenwich, where she now earns $147,197 annually.

Despite her presence during the troubled year, Ms, Wood is not considered to be a source of the issues. Her name came up infrequently by parents and investigators during the 2013 inquiry that uncovered the problems. At the arbitration hearing, she claimed that she brought concerns about program changes to then-Superintendent Steve Falcone in September 2012. These changes happened under the new director, Deirdre Osypuk, who was placed on paid leave for eight months before resigning amid the investigation’s findings that implicated she played a leading role in the district’s illegal program.

Ms. Wood said she didn’t know what Mr. Falcone would do with the information she gave him, adding that she didn’t think going to the Board of Education directly would be appropriate, given the union rules that outline complaint procedures.

“I had no knowledge of what the superintendent was and was not doing,” Ms, Wood told the arbitration panel. “I assumed when given information like this, that something proactive would be done.”

Problems only worsened, the investigations found. Another former special education employee, speech and language pathologist Julie Bookbinder, abruptly resigned before the 2012-13 school year began, shortly after Ms. Osypuk took over. Soon after leaving, she wrote Mr. Falcone an eight-page letter condemning Ms. Osypuk’s hiring and claiming the district was in “turmoil,” and staff were afraid to speak up.

A year later, Mr. Falcone resigned. While his departure appeared voluntary, Darien Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross announced his resignation along with information that Mr. Falcone had not shared Ms. Bookbinder’s letter with the board, and cited that as the reason for “accepting” his resignation. Mr. Falcone was soon hired as Stamford’s human resources director, where he remains.

One of the problems uncovered by investigators was that the district was not completing children’s individualized education plans, or IEPs, in a timely manner. Parents would sometimes wait months or longer before knowing what services their children were receiving, when state law requires the IEP be completed within five days of a team meeting. Even after being notified, parents said the IEPs would not reflect the team’s decision, and services often only existed on paper and were never implemented. It was alleged that Ms. Osypuk told them these problems were due to “clerical errors.”

Ms. Wood told the arbitration panel that she asked Ms. Osypuk about why some of the IEPs were not being done in a timely manner. However, in an 18-page letter to interim Darien Superintendent Lynne Pierson, Ms. Osypuk claimed that Ms. Wood was responsible for 60% of the late IEPs that were uncovered in the recent investigation. This amounts to 102 out of 169 IEPs that were found to have been delivered after the five-day deadline.

“Of the 269 IEPs she was responsible for finalizing, this administrator was late on 38% of them,” Ms. Osypuk wrote, alluding to Ms. Wood.

Ms. Wood cited two current Darien employees, Debi Boccanfuso and Laura Straiton, and a former special education director, Robin Pavia, as references. Ms. Pavia claimed that the problems were the result of former Assistant Superintendent Judith Pandolfo, who had taken responsibilities away from Ms. Pavia in an effort to gain control of the program. Ms. Pandolfo retired early this year after the district eliminated an assistant superintendent position, giving the only available slot to Tim Canty, who had only been working for a year in Darien.

Ms. Osypuk claimed that Ms. Pavia led a program that catered to a select group of parents who used high-priced lawyers to gain excessive services for their children, and that she was hired to get expenses “under control.” She also claimed that legal fees went down while she was director, a statement that was not supported by legal bills, which show fees increased under Ms. Osypuk. Parents said this happened because they feared the frugal direction being taken by the district and sought private placement for their children.

During the special education crisis, Darien handled more requests for mediation in one year than it had in the previous two years, records show. The year before Ms. Osypuk came to Darien, there were 41 children placed out of district. By Oct. 1, 2013, only six months after parents filed a complaint alleging violations of federal special education law, that number increased to 58, the highest in at least four years.

Ms. Wood is the eighth top-level administrator to resign or retire amid the special education problems. Antoinette Fornshell, formerly a literacy coordinator in Darien, resigned soon after the state’s investigation completed last year to also work in Greenwich.

Ms. Boccanfuso, principal at Middlesex Middle School, called Ms. Wood a problem solver who puts children first.

“She has true strength in dealing with the facts, sharing concerns, then problem solving to a point where all members of the discussion feel heard and realize that a productive outcome is the goal,” wrote Ms. Boccanfuso, who shared president duties of the administrators union with Ms. Wood last year.

“Carleen objectively looks at what students need in the classroom and is often the first one to roll up her sleeves and offer her help and support in every way possible so that every child benefits…” Ms. Boccanfuso continued.

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