SMMUSD HDQTRS — District officials are looking for a new field of candidates to repair a troubled special education department after the first round yielded no viable prospects.

The position of special education director is one that is believed to be the first major vacancy in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District since the superintendent spot was left open last year when Dianne Talarico departed to head the Burlingame School District.

Former special ed director Ruth Valadez, who was hired by the district in December 2006 and had what some parents described as a contentious relationship with the special education community, resigned in February to take on the same position at the much larger Lynwood Unified School District.

The vacancy comes as the district is in the process of revamping its special education program, which has been the subject of criticism over the past few years for a range of problems, including transparency, leading to feelings of mistrust for parents.

Many believe that it’s a crucial time in particular to hire the right candidate because of the responsibility that person will have to institute a series of recommendations recently put forth by the Special Education Collaborative Working Group, which spent several months reviewing old studies, audits and strategic plans.

Since Valadez’ resignation, Dr. Jeanne Davis, a retired teacher and administrator with a background in special education, has taken on the director’s position in the interim about three days a week, meeting with parents and developing a timeline for putting the working group’s recommendations into practice.

She has worked with districts across Southern California and has been doing mostly consulting since her retirement. Her most recent assignment was with the Whittier Area Cooperative Special Education Program as the administrator for the Special Education Local Plan Area, which is a state-mandated organization of school districts that are located near each other.

The Whittier Area Cooperative Special Education Program serves more than 5,700 students in three communities.

Davis said she has no interest in the permanent director position in Santa Monica-Malibu.

“My impression is this district deserves an experienced, creative … director and that the board and cabinet are demonstrating their support of the special education program,” she said.

Approximately 40 people applied for the position during the first round, which was screened by a panel of parents, teachers and administrators who are together conducting the first interviews before forwarding recommendations to the superintendent and senior cabinet members for a second look.

District officials said they will take a different approach during the next round, actually asking key educators in the state for recommendations.

“We’re getting a little bit more strategic because our first round didn’t give us a strong pool,” Superintendent Tim Cuneo said.

He added that other superintendents are indicating that they are experiencing similar issues with finding good candidates.

“It’s a tough job,” he said. “You have to deal with some really difficult issues and a lot of people are saying I’d rather not be in an administrative position where I have to deal with those kinds of issues and confrontation.”

Cuneo said he is looking for a candidate who has good interpersonal skills, has the ability to work with a variety of staff to align all the programs together and carry them out in the direction set by the Board of Education, knows how to deal with difficult negotiations, and has a strong knowledge of laws and programs concerning Individualized Education Plans, which outline the services a student will receive during the school year.

The first screening is scheduled for early June and Cuneo said he hopes to have someone on board by the beginning of the school year, if not earlier. The school board will have the final say over the hire.

Parents in special education said they would like to see a director with whom they can work collaboratively, which some said was an issue with the past director and her predecessor, Tim Walker, both of whom are said to have had contentious relationships with the special education community.

Ken Haker, the chairman of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, said the right candidate will have the ability to balance the needs of the children with the district’s, giving students what they require to be successful in the classroom.

“They should also have an interest in developing at the site level well-trained teams that will work successfully with the children and also the parents,” he said.

He added that the director should also have a sound knowledge with how the IEP process works. The process has drawn criticism from parents, specifically regarding the confidentiality clauses within settlement agreements that were reached with parents when disputes arose. A moratorium has been put into place on confidentiality clauses.

Craig Hamilton, a special education parent, said the director should be a person who not only is creative about developing programs, but also delivers them in an open way, all while working with the community.

“Whatever the selection process is, it should engage the special education community at some level because it is very important to them,” Hamilton, a member of the working group, said.

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