SMMUSD HDQTRS — A Seattle native with 25 years experience working in special education has been tapped to lead the same program in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District where officials are still repairing a department whose relationships with parents have suffered over the past several years.

The Board of Education on Thursday confirmed the appointment of Sara Woolverton whose contract as the special education director for the Everett Public Schools in Washington had expired at the end of June, replacing former director Ruth Valadez who resigned in February after more than two years on the job to take on the same position at Lynwood Unified School District.

Woolverton’s long resume begins in 1984 as a special educator in Seattle Public Schools where she was responsible for both general and special education in an inner city self-contained K-3 classroom. About five years later, she became the special educator for Edmonds School District, working on Individualized Education Plans (IEP), which outline the services that students receive during the school year.

Along the way Woolverton received her masters in special education and doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Washington, where she was also an instructor and educational researcher. In 2000, Woolverton returned to the Seattle Public Schools as the principal intern for an alternative elementary program, moving on a year later to become the special education program supervisor for the same district and later manager. In 2006, she became one of several special education directors for Everett Public Schools.

Facing budget cuts, one of the positions was slated to be eliminated. Having the least seniority on staff, Woolverton began looking for jobs in Northern and Southern California where her daughters live, hearing about an opening in Santa Monica-Malibu.

Following the interview with a panel of parents, teachers and administrators, Woolverton was advised to run a Google search on special education in Santa Monica, met with a slew of articles about some of the challenges it has faced in the past three years.

The history further piqued her interest in the job.

“I really respected the fairness of that to let candidates know what they might be walking into,” she said. “I did a little research with some articles that had been printed about the events and when I had my second interview with (Superintendent) Tim Cuneo and some other folks, I had a dialogue with them about their perception of the events and who I am in relation with things like that.”

She is coming into a department that is still in rebuilding mode after being hit by accusations that officials fostered a hostile environment during negotiation sessions for their children’s education plans, slamming the practice of including confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements between the district and certain families. There were concerns by parents that those agreements weren’t being included in the student’s records.

The district has taken steps to restore trust with parents over the past few years, including holding public forums and creating task forces that deal specifically with ways in which improvements can be made.

Woolverton remembers a point in the interview when a parent asked whether the agreements would be made in the IEP, confused by the question until she read the articles later.

“I had repeatedly declined, sometimes to the great ire on the parent’s part, to have closed-door negotiations because the law does not allow for that,” she said of past IEPs.

First on the to-do list for the new director is to get a copy of the California education code and familiarize herself with the key issues that tend to come up in special education, though she believes that the law in California is essentially the same as in Washington because both follow the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Time will also need to be spent meeting with the special education team, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses, and learning about some of the high profile cases in the district.

One of her biggest tasks in which she will be expected to dive into fairly soon is to analyze special education programs with the collaborative working group, which was formed to review old studies, audits and strategic plans. The group made a series of recommendations in April based on those studies, including hiring a full-time integration director and developing an IEP packet for parents.

The one portion that the working group did not have enough time to fully explore was programmatic issues. Several members of the working group who began analyzing that aspect of the department will continue for the next several months, Cuneo said.

“They will look at all the programs offered and how to align them,” he said

Woolverton came from a second crop of candidates who applied for the position. Officials expanded the search after the first field in which 40 people applied didn’t yield any viable prospects, going beyond California.

Cuneo said that the SMMUSD’s recent history might have deterred some candidates, but added that the district’s reputation is changing.

“The word on the street now is that we are changing,” he said. “We are addressing the issues here and there is a very new climate and a very positive place for people to come because we are really moving forward.”

It was Woolverton’s experience dealing with similar issues in Everett that also interested Santa Monica-Malibu officials. Cuneo said he spoke to the superintendent at Everett who said that Woolverton was one of the critical members in their district who helped them turn the special education program around.

Special education advocates said they were pleased with the hire.

“What I understand is she comes highly recommended and highly qualified,” Theresa Harris, the chair of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, said. “We’re absolutely thrilled that she’s accepted the offer and that the board has approved her contract.”

Claudia Landis, who is the vice-chair of the committee, said that she believes the process of finding a director was well thought out, open and inclusive.

“The choice of this person was done with an open process that was inclusive of a broad array of stakeholders,” she said. “The sense of the community of the outcome was that it was fair.”