“I think we need to be very transparent on what we’re doing.”
This call to discuss a sensitive issue regarding the Columbia School District’s special education department came from Columbia School Board member Tammy Mitchell Hines during Thursday’s meeting.
Referring to the board’s potential hiring of an expert to investigate allegations of special needs in the district going unnoticed or ignored, Hines said a discussion should take place in open session.
“For any complaint-we have the liberty to have the attorney hire somebody to look into any complaint or anything like that. And that would be the situation here,” Columbia School Board President Brad Roessler offered, explaining he didn’t want to talk about individual students in open session.
“What’s the concern?” board member Karen Anderson inquired of Hines.
“My concern is that we’re only looking into two people, two families that have come to board meetings when there are other families out there. We’ve had other families leave the district,” Hines recalled.
“Have they filed a complaint?” Anderson quizzed.
“None of them have,” Hines responded.
“Then there is no complaint to investigate if they don’t file a complaint,” Anderson exchanged.
“But then why is Brad wanting to hire a special ed expert to come in and review the complaints that were brought to the board?” Hines wondered. “Those weren’t formal complaints either.”
Roessler relayed a desire not to “violate (the Illinois Open Meetings Act) on either side,” and said he would check with the district’s attorney on whether it is a matter to bring up in closed session.
“I wanted an update on the impartial review that would give us recommendations to improve our special ed services for those kids who need us most,” Hines later told the Republic-Times.
Segobiano stated in an email that she could not comment on the discussion, as most information on special education is exempt from open session disclosure.
In the fall and winter months several parents came to board meetings to speak about special education issues in the district. Parent Angela McConachie also filed a complaint in February with the Illinois State Board of Education.
McConachie stood before the board Thursday to share ISBE’s follow-up from her complaint. ISBE stated in an email that the state can only go back as far as 12 months when investigating special education complaints against a school district.
Her son’s academic struggles date back several years.
“I wanted to make sure you guys were fully aware of that just so it wasn’t brought up in discussion to say the McConachie complaint was heard by the state and everything was found to be OK in the last 12 months,” McConachie said.
McConachie’s complaint explains how she sought an outside evaluation after the district refused to evaluate her son, revealing that he has Primary Language Disorder. He has difficulty comprehending what he is reading as well as issues with verbal expression.
Her complaint elaborates that she showed these results to the district, but the district will not recognize the diagnosis. Her son now receives accommodations for a language disorder but does not have an individualized education plan, a plan specific to special ed students.
McConachie also tells ISBE in her complaint that the school district could not explain her son’s results on the progress monitoring tool AIMSweb. In fifth grade, her son’s AIMSweb test showed him in the 10th percentile.
That put him well below average (25th percentile). Yet, McConachie shares in the complaint that “nothing was done” and questions if the district uses the screening tool correctly.
McConachie also states that during a meeting with Segobiano, the superintendent blamed Perandoe Special Education District for not “finding” her son, which is a process of identifying children with disabilities who need services.
Perandoe is a special education cooperative that provides special education services to school districts in Monroe and Randolph counties.
When interviewed by the Republic-Times, Carol Root of Perandoe explained an evaluation requires an entire team of specialists, only one of whom would have come from Perandoe. The rest of the team is employed by the school district.
“There isn’t a single person that makes decisions on their own,” she clarified.
Further, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that a school district is responsible for “finding” its students.
Columbia withdrew from Perandoe in 2014 for local control and ease of access to programs, as well as for financial savings.
“Columbia CUSD 4 has an amazing special education department. Staff members are devoted to their students and celebrate student progress and success,” Segobiano expressed.
Following the meeting, McConachie said she has heard complaints from other parents in the district. She said her son is not receiving help to improve his learning disorder but she is seeing improvements with his grades.
Segobiano told the Republic-Times the process for parents to address concerns about their children’s academic performance begins with the teacher “or the person most closely related to the items or issues.”
The next step would be to go to the building administrator, or to director Jeanne Goacher in the event of a special education concern.
If still unresolved, the parent would go to a district office administrator. The school board would be the last resort for a parent who feels their child’s needs have not been met.
Hines asked Segobiano during the meeting what research-based assessments the district uses to identify kids who are struggling. Segobiano said she wanted to have a specialist explain the process to the board.
“The (process) is not generated by administrators or anyone who is not qualified to make decisions on a particular subject area. AIMSweb is a screener but there’s a lot of multitude of other measures that we measure,” she added.
Segobiano indicated that teacher recommendations, grades, PARCC assessments and parent recommendations factor into the process as well.
“But what about research-based?” Hines pressed.
“I take a great stock in our educators. They’re professionals,” Segobiano told Hines. “I would value the opinion of my educators … 100 times more than an AIMSweb test.”
Hines said after the meeting she wanted to reassure parents that the board is addressing their concerns.
In other discussion, Hines also asked Roessler if he could provide a list of the executive sessions in the past 18 months that were not recorded.
“This was a discussion that needed to be held in open session,” she said.
Roessler informed Hines that only one of the last 18 meetings had successfully recorded.
“I think we’re done with that recorder because it fools you. It looks like it’s recording and everybody thought it was recording,” he said.
The Illinois Open Meetings Act states that “all public bodies shall keep written minutes of all their meetings, whether open or closed, and a verbatim record of all their closed meetings in the form of an audio or video recording.”