The South Orange-Maplewood School District has a new Director of Special Services — Ella Rideau, who has been serving as the district’s Supervisor of Special Services, K-5.
Rideau replaces Dr. Patricia Barker, who is retiring at the end of the current school year.
Rideau was narrowly approved by a 5-4 vote of the Board of Education on Monday night, May 18, after debate amongst board members and some critical public comments about the process of selection.
Jane Bleasdale President of SEPAC, for the Special Education Parents Advisory Committee, questioned the district’s process for hiring the new director of special services. Bleasdale said she saw the hiring process as an opportunity for a “much needed fresh start” for special education in the district which has endured many changes and challenges in recent years — including the “debacle of the DMC contract.”
“We thought you would partner with us,” said Bleasdale to the Board of Education during the first public comments portion on Monday’s meeting. “The process has not been an example of meaningful communications or best practices.” Bleasdale noted that, as president of SEPAC, she had had “no formal contact from the district on this process.”
SEPAC Board member Jenny Linstrom seconded Bleasdale’s concerns but added, “I want to be clear that the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee will continue to take the highest road and strive to work with the district.”
SEPAC Board member Mike Donoghue told the Board of Education that he was very appreciative about being included in the interview process but was disappointment with the followup in the aftermath of the interviews. He said he was surprised to hear of the decision on Friday with action to be taken by the Board on Monday — leaving very little time for the public to respond to the proposed appointment.
Adding to the dialogue was a heartrending testimonial from parent and district teacher Danielle Perrotta about an incident on the bus involving her 4-year-old daughter and a special education aide. “My daughter was harassed by children and an aide coming home from school,” reported Perrotta, who said that, instead of an HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) investigation, “the supervisor did a check on the aide.” Ultimately the aide was replaced, but Perrotta reported her daughter was sent home in a restraint. “That happened in March and I still don’t know why that happened. I didn’t know that was allowed to happen in our district,” said Perrotta.
“I have some concerns after what we have heard,” said Board of Education member Johanna Wright, who asked that the approval of Rideau’s appointment be severed from other personnel actions so that the Board could hold a discussion.
“I’m really concerned about what I’ve heard from parents,” continued Wright. “It’s one thing about a harness.” However, Wright said that the verbal abuse “is really bothering me in terms of training for an aide.”
Board member Madhu Pai noted, “This is a critically important role in this district.” She noted that the Director would be “overseeing the future of our most vulnerable students and the biggest achievement gap…. I’m a little concerned about some of the things we’ve heard today about the process by which the selection was made.” Pai said she was interested in an interim solution that would allow newly appointed Superintendent Dr. John Ramos “to come in and really see what’s happening.”
However, Acting Superintendent James Memoli said that Ramos had already been involved in the process. First, said Memoli, administration had formed an interview committee made up of administrative and staff union representatives, other teachers and administration and parents. Interview committees moved the candidates forward to a central office interview and then to Ramos.
Board member Maureen Jones felt that the process still needed more time. “Special education is really critical and has been through many changes in past few years,” said Jones.
Board member Elizabeth Baker agreed. “I’d like to join Ms. Pai and Ms. Jones in having more discussion about the direction the special education program needs to go in. We need to have a vision for the program before hiring a director. We have black holes of communication that we hear about where no one responds for days, weeks, months.” Baker also was concerned about the DMC report – where “no one collected the data.”
“We have not heard answers to why that happened,” said Baker.
But Board member Beth Daugherty said she planned on supporting the administration’s selection for the director. “I’m very concerned about what I heard tonight. I definitely heard. These are on Ms. Rideau’s radar to make improvements. These are all systemic changes and improvements that she would like to make. I do think continuity is important…. As a board, we monitor the improvements. We will have very frank conversations with Dr. Ramos when he comes in. I would like to give her the chance to improve the department.” Daugherty noted that the protocol of involving someone from SEPAC “could be better.”
Board members Donna Smith, Stephanie Lawson Muhammad and Jeff Bennett said they also respected the decision of the administration and wanted to support that decision.
“Dr. Ramos doesn’t want to see this position empty when he arrives,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “This is a critical position.” However, she said, “Her [Rideau’s] eyes are very widely open to the past.”
“Well-run districts respect that the administration fundamentally has the responsibility and accountability for selecting these positions,” said Board President Wayne Eastman. “Our responsibility is to select the superintendent. In less well-run districts, boards interfere. That said, I do deeply respect the concerns raised.”
Pai brought up the situation of the District Management Council consulting project to assess the state of special education in the district. Portions of the DMC’s work were not completed because data was not gathered and/or entered within the district. “We need to think long and hard about fact that that consulting gig did not go well because pivotal data was not provided by the department from which this person comes. We need to know as a board – it may not have been her fault. My hesitation stems from that.”
However, Bennett said that the Board was “spun” on that consultancy by the “person at the top.”
“I don’t think Rideau can be blamed,” said Bennett. “I support the recommendation.”
Rideau was approved by a vote of 5-4 with Eastman, Daugherty, Bennett, Smith and Lawson-Muhammad voting yes; Baker, Jones, Pai and Wright voted no.
Rideau then thanked the Board for “giving me the opportunity to make a difference with special education. My whole career has been dedicated to special education,” she said. “I will listen to all concerns, have an open door policy, meet with parents continuously. … We all have the same idea in mind to support our students … to support the whole child. I look forward to working with all of you and my parents.”