Earlier this month, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board took a big step in voting to impose a strict moratorium on the use of all confidentiality clauses in the district’s controversial Special Education Program — even if a parent or guardian requests it.

The board voted for the full moratorium, among other initial steps, in response to an independent review of the district’s Special Education Program, which had a policy of requiring parents of special education students to sign confidentiality clauses in their settlement agreements.

The policy was instituted several years ago and has been met with much opposition.

“I’ve been against confidentiality from the beginning because I believe in government that’s accountable to the people and transparent in its dealings,” said school board president Oscar de la Torre, who also noted that he didn’t think settlement agreements were “in line with the type of culture we want to create in the district.”

Assistant superintendent Mike Matthews agreed.

“I think we should put a complete ban on them,” he said of confidentiality clauses. “I think the city will appreciate the transparency; I think the staff will appreciate the transparency.”

The results of the independent evaluation of the Special Education Program, conducted by Lou Barber and Associates, made it clear that the district needs to make changes to its current plan.

Among other things, the report noted that confidentiality clauses create a sense of “secret deals and unequal treatment of students and families.”

In fact, shortly after the release of the audit, deputy superintendent Tim Walker — who helped implement the Special Education Program — resigned suddenly.

Also, the City Council withheld $530,000 in funding to the school district until the district placed a moratorium on the policy and revisited the Special Education Program.

School superintendent Dianne Talarico went before the council in April, but requested the Council continue holding the funds until she could finish her investigation and development of recommendations.

At the school board meeting earlier this month, the board took the first steps toward making changes to the program while the comprehensive three-to-five-year plan is in development.

Aside from the strict moratorium, some changes include:

— the reorganization of the central office;

— contracting, when necessary, with certified mediators in dispute resolutions to resolve disagreements that arise in Individualized Education Plans (IEP) meetings; and

— contracting with an external monitor to provide quarterly progress reports regarding the implementation of the district’s comprehensive plan.

“We have to move forward very thoroughly and very thoughtfully,” noted board member Kelly Pye.

Paul Silvern, chair of the Financial Oversight Committee, pointed out that the Special Education Program is an approximately $23-million undertaking in the district’s budget each year, plus an additional general fund subsidy of $11.7 million.

“It is a very big and substantial part of the district’s budget,” he said, speaking on behalf of the committee.

“We strongly recommend that you continue to give close attention to the financial aspects of the program as well as all the programmatic issues that you have to face.”

Silvern added, “You simply can’t wait three to five years for an implementation plan on financial grounds or programmatic grounds. You have to move more quickly.”

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