Malibu supports SMMUSD special education program


Malibu parents say their opinions were excluded from a consultant’s review of the special education program. One parent says this is another reason Malibu must form its own school district.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

For the second consecutive Board of Education meeting, Santa Monica parents bashed the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s special education program. But also at this meeting, which took place last Thursday at Santa Monica City Hall, school officials heard from Malibu residents, who had praise for the program and specifically for Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker.

Walker’s handling of the special education program has been under fire from Santa Monicans for a while, and the anger has increased since last month’s release of an independent audit of the program by the firm Lou Barber and Associates. But the Malibu special education students and parents attending Thursday’s meeting applauded Walker’s work. They spoke prior to a closed-session board review of Walker’s contract.

“My mom says I’m getting great services,” said Malibu High School student Tiana Fazio, who has autism. “I work really hard every day and graduated eighth-grade with three awards. Thanks mom and Tim Walker for believing in me.”

Also during this portion of the meeting, Webster Elementary School principal Phil Cott read a letter in support of Walker signed by district site administrators, including all the school principals in Malibu.

“We rely on Dr. Walker’s leadership, guidance and advocacy for all students to help us meet the challenges of the work we do each day,” Cott said. “One of the most important qualities of a leader is to ensure that those charged with carrying out the work are strongly supported. We deeply appreciate the tremendous support that we receive from Dr. Walker each day.”

The Malibu parents shared their experiences in local schools, which they said were different than what has been said to occur in Santa Monica. Several parents said they had met personally with Lou Barber to express their gratitude for Walker and for a comprehensive and supportive school program in Malibu, but were dismayed to find their feedback absent in Barber’s report.

“The report was slanted in a certain direction,” said Board member and Malibu resident Kathy Wisnicki, in a an interview this week with The Malibu Times.

Wisnicki tried to voice the opinions of the Malibu parents about the success of their special education program later in Thursday’s meeting after the Malibu residents had left. Her comments to the mostly Santa Monican crowd were met with laughter, sneers and even a sarcastic statement from an audience member, “She’s really sympathetic to our cause,” the person said.

Issue extends to secession movement

Since last year’s decision by the Board of Education to temporarily cut the amount of facilities improvement funding for Malibu High, there has been a movement by Malibu parents to create a separate school district. The first step in the process is to get 25 percent of the registered voters in the Malibu area to sign a petition for the county to do a feasibility assessment for the creation of a Malibu district.

Laureen Sills, a statewide special education parent activist and Malibu resident, said after Thursday’s meeting she is planning to help with the signature collection. She said she feels the special education issue has made the issue of division, funding and Malibu’s lack of political clout more present than ever.

“I don’t understand why [Lou Barber] didn’t include any of the positive comments we gave him,” she said. “What is wrong with saying the situation in Malibu is actually good?”

Sills said the Board of Education created many of the problems and they are now using Walker as a scapegoat for, an opinion shared by Wisnicki

“When people act surprised on the dais, I’m surprised,” Wisnicki said. “All along, we’ve known about this.” She said this includes issues with spending and funding in special education, particularly, sending children outside the district to receive services, which is costly.

District makes preliminary response to Barber report

During Thursday’s meeting, Superintendent Dianne Talarico offered the district’s preliminary response to the Barber report. The response calls for the creation of a three- to five-year development plan to implement change in the special education program, a reorganization of the district’s central office, recruitment of more highly trained and skilled staff, and an early intervention approach for students with special needs.

“I accept full responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in today,” Talarico said.

The special education issue will be on the agenda at the next board meeting. It will take place on May 1 at Malibu City Hall. The closed session portion of the meeting is expected to include further discussion of Walker’s contract.

Santa Monica City Council talks special education

The district had been forced to hire a consultant to do the special education review because several Santa Monica City Council members refused to increase the city’s annual contribution to the district unless a review was done. The Santa Monica City Council was supposed to discuss earlier this month whether the district had met the conditions for its contribution increase, but that item was delayed. That discussion was expected to happen at its meeting on Tuesday after The Malibu Times went to print.