During a special meeting of the Board of Finance on Wednesday evening, April 9, the town’s finance officials began discussing charges being made by a Wilton resident, Marissa Lowthert, against the Board of Education.
Warren Serenbetz, chair of the BoF announced a strict 30 minute period he’d allotted to, “discuss a taxpayer request to audit the BoE and Wilton Public School policies and procedures related to settlement negotiated payments.”
At issue were allegations made by Lowthert and sent via email to officials and blind-copied to parents. In the email she alleges that the BoE and Wilton Schools’ superintendent have tried to engage her in a “‘secret’ settlement proccess” and are trying to “pay me more than $267k for my silence.” As she writes in her email subject line–“Is paying me more than $267k for my silence a good use of Wilton’s BOE/ Special Ed Funds?”–Lowthert alleges that the school is using special education dollars inappropriately.
Over the last year, Lowthert has raised questions and pushed for more transparency regarding Indoor Air Quality at Miller Driscoll. She has appeared at several town board meetings and has sent dozens of emails to public officials (as well as GMW.com) regarding problems she says exist with the way school officials have handled air quality issues, and she argues that the health of students and teachers is at risk as a result.
Quoting from the email, which was forwarded to GOOD Morning Wilton, Lowthert writes:
“What the BOE and Richards have done is enter me into a “secret” settlement process. Since it has taken so much time to address my children’s needs while continuing to pursue more IAQ issues, I haven’t had time to keep everyone updated.
Per the email below, in “secret” negotiations the BOE offered me “a lot more than $267,000” of BOE/Special Education funds- but only if I would end my IAQ activities and be silent.
Should Special Education/BOE/taxpayer dollars be used to silence a parent concerned about the health of students and teachers?
On Wednesday evening, Serenbetz invited G. Kenneth Bernhard, attorney for the town of Wilton, to the board’s table to discuss the issue and advise the BoF on how to proceed.
“We want to start understanding what are our responsibilities with respect to the concerns that the taxpayer has raised regarding the two-track process, or ‘hush money’ or whatever you want to call it. According to state statute and town charter, what can we ask of the Board of Ed in order to get their responses to those things as we evaluate whether we want to actually do an audit of this area,” Serenbetz explained.
Lowthert’s email was sent to “undisclosed recipients” and addressed to “Concerned Parents and Wilton Residents” on Monday, April 7. It has circulated widely among parents. It also reflects an email trail with earlier emails Lowthert sent to town officials, referring to an earlier request she made on March 23 of this year asking “…for a special audit of Special Education for possible misuse of taxpayer funds.”
Referring to emails sent by Lowthert, town counsel Bernhard said, “In some of the emails have used words that nobody likes to see used, especially directed at public officials, volunteers and people who are engaging in public service to help the community. Particularly when the other side is somewhat restrained and handcuffed in what they can say in response, because the matters are delicate. There are statutory obligations they have to live up to and have to respect families’ privacy. It is an uneven playing field up to this point because of the public suggestions, accusations concerns, issues and so forth.”
With regard to the request from Lowthert, Bernhard told the board, “You don’t have any right or ability to audit their special education disbursements, funds. As to how they literally disburse the funds, it’s a matter of privacy.”
He said that in talking to the attorney for the Board of Education, the BoE “are perfectly willing to explain procedures, policies, overviews, but with regard to any specific case and the resolution of the specific application that’s verboten by law, and you have no ability to extract it from them.”
He added that it didn’t appear that the BoE would be entirely uncooperative, however. “My sense is that there is a complete willingness to share anything and everything that they possibly and comfortably can without exposing themselves to a liability.”
As counsel to the town Bernhard cautioned the BoF to tread lightly, citing the precedence of a case in Darien where BoF inquiry into matters raised questions of legal compliance.
“I don’t want to see you venture too far over some indistinguishable line in your efforts to somehow get into an area that by statute you’re not allowed to and shouldn’t and would be well-advised not to.”
When asked if all financial details overseen by the Bd. of Education are off-limits, Bernhard explained that while the BoF can perform an audit, “When it comes to special education, the statutes are very clear, that it’s not a public arena, it’s not open to an analysis or second-guessing. I’d be hesitant to see you venture too far into that. Policies and procedures you can have access too. [But] how they transact a particular application and apply it, you’re not permitted to have it.”
Bernhard also said that any challenge of the kind being discussed would likely cost the town “tens of thousands of dollars, just to get an evaluation. If the parent is dissatisfied with that evaluation, they can force you to go get another evaluation from an independent, so you can pay for it twice. There are hard costs and soft costs. You have to pay the lawyers, you could be talking between 5-20 days of trial, and engaging school employees taking them out of school. The cost factor in engaging a parent who is not interested in the town’s perspective, they’re only interested in their own conclusions…the cost factor in fighting a dispute is so high, that’s why you hear it’s less expensive to settle.”
In cautioning the BoF, Bernhard described the conversations that have taken place thus far between the lawyer for the schools and the lawyer for Lowthert:
“Let’s put it this way: counsel for special ed in talking to the counsel for the applicant had no idea that what was being discussed would somehow be turned around, and when there was effort and momentum to resolve, it was turned around and loose vocabulary was applied to the process that doesn’t bear any resemblance to … either lawyers’ version of it. Quite frankly, the lawyer on the other side has suggested that it was no inappropriate conversation.”
In addition, Bernhard told the BoF, “The only conversations that the counsel for the board of ed had–I’m told by that side–is with counsel for the applicant, who was retained for the specific purpose of pursuing an alternate education program. Where it could have ventured outside of that, if that’s the case you’d have to believe that both counsel were engaging in inappropriate behavior, not just the board of ed. You can’t offer if you haven’t been asked.”
Before he left the finance officials to discuss whether or not to pursue any kind of audit, Bernhard was asked to get “tangible evidence” that what he described occurred as he related.
Acknowledging that some of what Bernhard reported was ‘interpretation’ based on what he’d learned by talking to the counsel for the BoE, and that a portion of the information the Bd. of Finance was receiving from the Lowtherts was what they called ‘opinion,’ BoF member Lynne Vanderslice said she wanted to learn more ‘facts’ as related to the specific case.
“There’s been a lot of information put out there. I want to see the facts.”
In addition, Serenbetz said he would ask for written policies and procedures from the board of ed in order to help the finance board better understand how special ed disbursements are made.