October 28, 2016, 3:53 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a statement from a member of the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee in support of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education’s decision to award a contract to a consulting firm to conduct a search for a new Director of Special Services.
Correction: Although the original resolution awarding the contract stated the amount as $15,000; the final adopted resolution was for $7,500.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District is moving forward in the process to select a new Director of Special Services by hosting a focus group on November 3 at Columbia High School.
The focus group will be led by Atlantic Research Partners, a search firm that was awarded a $7,500 contract to conduct the search for a new director of Special Services by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education at a special meeting on Monday, October 24. (The original resolution posted on the October 24 meeting agenda read $15,000; however, the resolution has been updated to read $7,500.)
Current Director Ella Rideau recently announced her retirement after being appointed to the position in 2015. Rideau’s retirement is effective in March; however, she may step away earlier due to accrued vacation and sick time (Village Green has an inquiry into the District asking for clarification).
The invitation to the focus group reads as follows:
Parents, students, district staff, community members and related stakeholders are invited to attend a Focus Group session with the firm, Atlantic Research Partners, to solicit feedback and input concerning the qualifications for the next Director of Special Services for our district.
This session will provide the search consultant with valuable input from SOMSD stakeholders on the desired competencies and skills for the Director’s role. The input will inform the position description, and guide the consultant on identifying and screening candidates. The session is expected to be 90 minutes.
The focus group is open to the community. No RSVP is required.
The move to hire Atlantic to conduct the search did not arrive without criticism. Elissa Malespina, former librarian at South Orange Middle School and former candidate for the Board of Education, voiced her concerns in a letter to the Board of Education. Malespina wrote that she felt a national search was misguided in that the district would need a director with a strong knowledge of New Jersey special education law. Malespina also questioned the expenditure of funds at a time when the district was in a prolonged budget crisis: “How do you justify spending $14,500 plus another 500 for travel expenses, when you can’t purchase books for our school libraries because of budget issues?”
Conversely, Mike Donoghue, Budget Committee Chair of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC), released a statement to Village Green supporting the decision by the Board of Education. It reads:
“I’d like to thank the Board for overwhelmingly passing the resolution to conduct a professional search for the next Special Services Director. Strong and independent leadership will be critical as the Special Services Department faces the programming, administrative, legal and financial challenges ahead.
“Given the importance and history of the Special Services Department, and the questions that were raised about the previous hiring process in 2015, it is important that a fully transparent and very wide search be performed. Using an independent party to conduct the search should enhance results and should provide the community with comfort that the process was indeed comprehensive and independent.
“I sympathize with those in the community who are concerned about the district’s finances as I am well aware of the financial predicament the district is in. However, I also know that a part of the solution will involve changes in the way the district implements special education. For some context – the 2016-17 budget for Special Services is $33.5 million. We will need the absolute best person we can find to fill this role and to navigate the financial and other challenges. The small cost of a professional search pales in comparison to the costs of a special services department that is not well run. In my view, it would have been penny wise and pound foolish to limit the candidate pool in this search, and to leave in place a process that produced so many questions in the recent past.”
The focus group will meet Thur., Nov. 3, 2016 Time: 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. at the Columbia High School Chorus Room, 17 Parker Avenue, Maplewood, NJ.