Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

March 27, 2014

Rift divides special ed. parents

7 on 10-member advisory board resign in protest

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@andovertownsman.com

---- — Deepening factions on the Special Education Parent Advisory Council have led to the resignation of seven of its 10 members.

Six members — including the president and vice president — stepped down last week, citing an inability to work with a new group of parents that is trying to get involved in the organization.

Their departure — which followed last month’s resignation of the board’s other co-president — came as the advisory council was preparing to distribute its first-ever parent survey seeking feedback on special education services in town.

In a group letter to school officials last Friday, the six resigning members pointed to a “fundamental disagreement about the function and future direction” of the council.

They said a “small but vocal group of parents has expressed dissatisfaction with the way SEPAC has been run and the work that the group has done on behalf of parents of children with special needs.” They added that the newly involved parents “expressed disregard” for SEPAC’s policies and procedures and had “communicated distrust” with the current leadership.

“It has become increasingly apparent that the disparity between the established PAC and this group is insurmountable. Despite our best efforts, we cannot effectively lead this group and remain true to the goals of the organization,” the six said, adding they were resigning “with profound disappointment.”

The letter was signed by president Jackie Pitts, vice president Pam DeMichaelis and members Lauren Vallarelli, Regina Kelly, Kathy Sherman and Sharon Mason. It was sent to Annie Gilbert, who serves as the School Committee’s liaison to the council, with copies to Superintendent Marinel McGrath and Student Services Director Joyce Laundre. The resignations were effective Friday at 5 p.m.

The former co-president of the group, Cindy Webber, resigned about a month earlier, citing personal reasons.

Six of the seven resigning members did not return phone calls last week. One of the members reached, treasurer Vallarelli, would only say that the resignations “were not directly related to the survey.” She declined further comment.

Gilbert said in a voicemail message left with The Andover Townsman that she thought the resignations were a result of a “philosophical disagreement over the future direction of SEPAC. That’s what led to the resignations.”

The resignations leave just three people on the board. A special election is planned for Wednesday, April 2, to fill vacancies on an interim basis until the council’s annual election is held in May. The election will be held at 7 p.m. in the School Administration Building, 36 Bartlet St.

Cindy Cromer, one of the newcomers who has tried to get involved with the advisory council, said she would agree to be on the board and in fact had already been nominated by several people to fill a seat.

She said she was not totally surprised by the mass exodus, but was “a little surprised” by what was said in the letter, adding, “I’ve never been part of a hostile takeover before.”

“I don’t agree that people expressed dissatisfaction about the way things were done,” she said. “We just brought up ways to improve it, like following the Open Meeting Law. I don’t agree with the letter. I guess I don’t give it a lot of credibility.”

While not SEPAC members, Cromer and Jeanne Teichert had both been appointed to a subcommittee to create the survey that went live this week with a link on the SEPAC website, www.andoversepac.org.

Teichert said there had been some disagreement over the process used to assemble the survey, but that ultimately everyone agreed it was a good idea. The board even voted unanimously at its last meeting on Wednesday, March 19, to send out the survey. Immediately after that vote, however, the six board members announced their resignations.

“The new people who got involved were the ones who were more interested in moving forward with the survey,” Teichert said. “It was our idea. We took the ball and ran with it. There were some complaints from people who had been there a while about the process, but there really wasn’t a process because no survey had ever been done before.”

Cromer suggested that the longer-serving board members, some of whom had been involved 10 to 15 years, couldn’t handle the speed with which the new group of parents assembled the survey and prepared it for release.

“The survey committee came on strong,” she said. “They got it done in under two months. Up until now, it’s been run like a government organization. It’s been slow, not nimble at all.”

Cromer said she was unclear on why the six board members were moved to resign together.

“I don’t know what the real reason is, unless they just didn’t want to work with the new parents,” she said. “When you’ve been with an organization for 10-plus years, like some of them have been, maybe they perceived what we were saying as criticism, when all we were doing was bringing it (the committee) more in line with the law. There was nervousness they weren’t following the law.”

But, Cromer said, the important thing is for the board to regroup and reconstitute itself to make sure the survey gets out and that results are compiled and then disseminated to the public so that student services can be improved, if necessary.

“What gets lost in all this, there are kids who need services to be able to be educated and that’s where the focus needs to be,” she said. “We are doing things to help families in town who have special needs children and don’t know what to do. Kids get really anxious when they can’t succeed. When they can, they will. Let’s help them.”