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District 64 taps consultant to audit special education program, but parents feel left out of process

District 64 taps consultant to audit special education program, but parents feel left out of process
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Park Ridge-Niles District 64 Superintendent Laurie Heinz tapped a consultant to audit the district’s special education programs, a move that angered parents who said they were disappointed to be excluded from the selection process.

Lisa Harrod, of LMT Consulting, will be paid no more than $15,000 to audit the district’s programs for students who have significant disabilities, Heinz said Monday. Because the contract is for less than $25,000, the contract did not require the approval of the District 64 Board of Education.

Harrod, the superintendent of Manteno Community Unit School District No. 5 near Rockford, is a nationally recognized expert in special education, said Mike Padavic, the District 64 interim director of student services.

“She is very well known,” Padavic said.

Harrod, who has led the Manteno district since 2013, spoke at the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education conference in September about the benefits of co-teaching, which has been implemented in District 64 schools.

She has been working as a consultant for more than 20 years, and Harrod said she expects to deliver a strategic plan that will cover the next three to five years of special education programs and policies in District 64 at the board meeting scheduled for May 21.

Harrod said she did not believe there are “systemic” problems with the district’s special education programs.

“District 64 has really, really good foundations and roots in place,” Harrod said, adding that she will examine whether the issue is how officials communicate with parents.

Harrod is scheduled to attend the next meeting of a District 64 support group designed to address concerns about the district’s special education programs, scheduled for 7 p.m. April 11 at Lincoln Middle School, 200 S. Lincoln Ave.

The audit will include extensive surveys of parents and teachers, as well as a review of the materials used in District 64 special education classes, Heinz said.

In a memo to board members, Heinz said she and Padavic selected Harrod because she offered to “customize the components within the audit to meet our needs.”

Miki Tesija, whose son has Down syndrome and attends fourth grade at Field Elementary School, said the announcement of Harrod’s selection took her and other parents by surprise. She and other parents had asked the board to form an official committee and include parents of special education students to shape the scope of the audit and select a firm to conduct the work.

“Given the months of people coming to you and begging for help, this is shocking,” Tesija said.

Janessa Nichols, who is also the parent of a special education student, said the award of the contract undermines recent efforts by the District 64 administration to build trust with parents of students with disabilities.

“You are saying you hear us, but your actions are not matching that,” Nichols said.

Heinz said it was appropriate for her as superintendent to pick the auditor, and that parents could participate in the audit through the planned surveys.

“We will be very transparent about the findings,” Heinz said, adding that they will be published on the district’s website.

Heinz first announced the special education audit in December after parents objected to a proposal that would have had special education students start middle school one year early. After several parents told the board the change would undo years of efforts to integrate their children into mainstream classes, the proposal was dropped.

The proposal was designed to avoid having students in kindergarten and first grade share a special education classroom with fifth-grade students. An Illinois State Board of Education policy permits only a four-year age span in a single classroom. The district has applied for and received four waivers of that policy from state officials in the past two years, Heinz said.

In December, Heinz said an audit was needed to solve the “giant puzzle” of the district’s special education space, staffing and resource allocation.

Harrod said Tuesday she was not aware of that issue, but was prepared to examine it as part of the audit.

Also Monday, Heinz did not ask the board to approve permanent student services director. Padavic, who replaced Jane Boyd, who retired in December, is not seeking the position permanently.

Seven candidates have been narrowed to two finalists after several rounds of interviews and reference checks, Heinz said last week.

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