The results of an audit into Darien Public Schools' special education program has uncovered an assortment of problems that experts say go beyond Darien.
The wealthy Fairfield County town got over $200,000 in state and federal money for special education services that never existed, according to the audit, which was performed by Cohn Reznick after the school district had violated special education law more than two-dozen times.
The audit found that Darien kept almost no records. There were no time logs to see if consultants were actually doing their jobs. There were poor directions written into students' educations plans. There was no proof that kids with disabilities were actually being educated.
Unless, of course, their parents had documents.
The auditors interviewed a few parents who had kept emails and other records that showed their kids weren't being educated. The auditors found that about $20,000 in services were not given to these parents’ kids, but money for those services was given to the district by the state. During the year audited, 2012-13, there were about 600 Darien families who had kids in special education, but the auditors only interviewed a handful of parents.
Attorney Andrew Feinstein represented 25 Darien parents who won a complaint against the district, after raising concerns that special education laws were being violated. Feinstein said parents shouldn’t be responsible for record-keeping, and that ultimately the state is responsible for ensuring districts are not getting money they aren’t eligible for.
"The real blame lies with the State Department of Education," Feinstein said. "They're the ones who dispense millions of dollars in excess cost reimbursements to school districts. This is public money and they have an obligation to do serious audits of what school districts are billing them for."
If the interviews with the parents are an indication of the severity of the problem, then there could be much more money that Darien got from the state to pay for services that weren’t delivered.
This money would not be included in the figure uncovered by CohnReznick, which found that Darien asked for over $376,000 in money it wasn’t eligible for. After adjusting for other errors and the state’s reimbursement policy, the actual amount of money Darien got, but wasn’t eligible for, was about $200,000.
How Does This Process Work?
In Connecticut, school districts are eligible to get money back from the state for every child whose expense exceeds 4.5 times the per-pupil cost in that district. In Darien, for example, this amount was $72,834 during the year audited. If a child cost $100,000 to educate, the state is supposed to reimburse the difference (in this case, it would be $27,166).
Districts are required to track how many hours of special education services a student receives, and use that figure to calculate costs to determine if it reaches the eligibility threshold. The money they get back is called the “excess cost grant.”
Money from the state then goes to the town, which usually gives the money back to the district.
In Darien’s case, the extra money went to the schools to be used for anything the district desired. Strict laws surround money for special education, but state and federal authorities have been silent on determining how to discipline the district, if at all, for spending money slated for special education on other things.
Problems Run Deep
Darien had no record of special education services being delivered. The record-keeping was so bad that it took the auditors nearly a year and a half to complete the audit, and its final cost was 10-times more than the initial quote used to gain the contract.
Record-keeping issues were documented by The Darien Times newspaper, which found the district had no formal record retention policy, and may have prematurely destroyed education records at the request of the special education director.
Now, the lack of records has made it difficult to determine if students received the services that Darien billed the state for.
Darien’s special education system fell under heavy scrutiny when it was found in 2013 that the district embarked on an illegal campaign to reduce, restrict and deny educational services to students with disabilities to save money, and stifle parent involvement. This was confirmed in a two-part state investigation and an independent probe that cost the district $196,000.
The debacle ended in numerous resignations, and all employees have gone on to other six-figure jobs and even wrote each other letters of recommendation in which they touted their knowledge of special education law.
The audit was called for after the independent investigator, Chicago attorney Sue Gamm, found that the district was applying for money it wasn’t eligible for. Gamm found that names of employees who had resigned were listed as having provided services to students, and a single full-time aide was reported as having worked full time for more than one student.
To further complicate matters during the audit, Darien used confusing and often illegal language in students’ Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs. Educators would write that a student was eligible for “up to” a certain number of service hours, whereas state and federal law requires hours to be specific.
But the auditors did something that attorney Feinstein and several parents said compromises the audit’s integrity. When CohnReznick found instances where the district applied for money for 10 hours of services, when the IEP had “up to 20” hours, the firm would change that to 20 hours. Or, if there was a consultant bill that indicated 30 hours of service was delivered, the auditors would increase the submission for 30 hours.
Below is a selection from the audit:
The district did this despite there being no service or time logs to show that kids were educated at all.
In its final report, released to the public on February 10, CohnReznick attempted to justify its procedures:
It should be noted again that based upon the information available, it was necessary to use our judgment and experience as to the approach to the procedures we performed, the calculations or allocation methodology used and the appropriateness of a cost included on the Student cost sheets and the value of the supporting documentation provided.
In addition, it is important to understand that the information we obtained from the review of the available documentation and the procedures that we performed had a greater impact on our conclusions than information obtained from discussions and interviews.
However, Joe Centofanti, CohnReznick’s lead auditor, admitted that he’d never performed an audit like this. The nature of the audit changed throughout the process, and the firm developed its methodology as it went along. Centofanti did not respond to a request for comment.
The auditors initially did not interview those in charge of actually filing the excess cost submission. After outcry from the public and media, the firm then went back and spoke with former employees.
One of the employees was Dick Huot, the finance director. According to the audit report, Huot told the auditors that there were excess cost problems in the past, but that they were cleared up:
Darien has consistently received more money than other similar towns through the excess cost process. However, district and town leaders have said they do not wish to go back and audit past years to see if the problems have an earlier genesis.
State education officials have not responded to comment requests to see if the state would require the district to audit earlier years. To fix the problem, the state would simply withhold money from future excess cost disbursements to Darien.
Auditing firm McGladrey is the district’s normal auditor. Representatives there haven't responded to requests for comment.
For attorney Feinstein, the audit shows that districts can break special education law with impunity, and hire an auditor to “white-wash” a complicated problem.
“The fact that Darien can sort of sweep this under the rug – and the fact that the state has done nothing to audit, nothing to protect the public fisc in this area – is sort of an open door for other districts to pad their excess cost reimbursements,” Feinstein said.