What the Heck Is Going on at the DOE’s Special Education Division? Or, Some (Verified) Leaks from the Inside.

Ever since I published this post (and this follow-up) recapping layoffs of 40 people from the New Jersey Department of Education, a process a manager there described  as callous” and “sloppily done,”  I occasionally receive information from former and current employees who report on dysfunction, disarray, and deteriorating morale. I read their comments gratefully (if sadly) but don’t considering posting unless I can verify with a second reliable source. After all, these are people’s lives.

I have been able to verify one area of concern, the Office of Student Support Services, which serves students with disabilities. (Regular readers will know this is a bailiwick of mine because I have a son and had a sister with multiple disabilities.) I’m not going to use any names, except for the Assistant Commissioner of Student Services, Carolyn Marano, a direct report to Commissioner Lamont Repollet.

I don’t know Carolyn Marano. I’ve never met her. She may be a brilliant manager with a heart of gold who inherited a broken department.

But, readers, right now the DOE’s Division of Student Services is a shitshow. And the question foremost in my mind is whether the the problems within this Division are an anomaly or emblematic of systemic dysfunction.

That’s a question I can’t answer, although there are troubling signs: pages of the DOE website that typically list bios of executives and descriptions of DOE offices say “Under Construction”; the community outreach page on the state’s charter school law says that registration for local forums “is now closed. If you were unable to register to attend an Outreach event, we encourage you to please submit your feedback through our written survey above. Thank you!”; a rumor is circulating that the DOE will, however, hold additional charter forums in places like Princeton and Montclair, both wealthy suburbs where anti-charter groups like Save Our Schools have a strong presence and where charter growth isn’t an issue; Repollet’s proposals to the State Board of Education on eliminating standardized tests (one of Gov. Murphy’s promises to NJEA) were roundly criticized (here’s my take) as an attempt to thwart accountability and lower expectations for NJ students.

But let’s stay away from conjecture and focus on verifiable information. Here’s what I’ve been able to confirm by more than one reliable source about the Office of Student Support Services:

Directors in the DOE are political appointments. Gov. Murphy chose Carolyn Marano, most likely at the behest of Repollet because she worked with him at his former gig as superintendent of Asbury Park Public Schools. There, despite heaps of money (total annual cost per student is $35,632), only 5.5 percent of students reach proficiency in math and 15.1 percent reach proficiency in English Language Arts.

How did students with disabilities do under Ms. Marano’s oversight in Asbury Park, a significant data point because she now oversees the progress of students with disabilities throughout the State? According to the 2017-2018 ESSA School Accountability Profile, 2.1 percent of Asbury Park students with disabilities met targets for proficiency; the district’s target was 8.8 percent. While district scores won’t be released until January, if you scroll through this spreadsheet you’ll see that zero percent of high school students with disabilities were proficient in ELA and math (although the state suppresses percentages below six percent) and zero percent of third graders with disabilities were proficient in ELA and math.

Before going to Asbury Park, Ms. Marano was Director of Special Education at Vernon Township Public Schools.  According to leaks from the DOE (which, again, I was able to verify through a second source), among the 20 staff members in the department seven resigned in 18 months as a result of “abusive treatment.”

There were six grievances filed. An Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request revealed that Vernon County taxpayers spent $47,500 defending Marano against claims of “bullying allegations and grievance negotiations.” (See below.)

How’s she doing as Director of Student Support Services?

Here’s what I was able to verify (with names redacted):

  • Previously the department was run by one director and one manager. Now there is one director, two assistant directors, and one manager.
  • The second floor of the DOE, where Student Support Services is situated, was completely renovated at great expense and disruption.
  • The seven-year veteran Director of the Office of Supplemental Educational Services was reassigned.
  • The Director of the Office of Special Education retired.
  • A Director of Title 1 services either was reassigned or resigned.
  • NJ government offices use levels  to describe experience, i.e., managers are typically level 32 and above  and directors are 34 and above. Marano’s new Director of Special Education is a level 28, the lowest level of professional staff.
  • The newest employee in the Division is now Assistant Director of the Office of Student Support Services.

How’s staff morale? One correspondent described it as  “hostile.” The staff is no longer allowed to eat in common areas or communicate with colleagues outside the Division. They are no longer approved to attend professional development activities. Retaliatory actions are commonplace. There is talk of a class action suit against Marano for a “hostile work environment.” Some number of employees (as many as 36) have requested transfers.

Marano responded to concerns from staff members within her Division with this email :

Good afternoon,

I hope this email finds you well as we get deeper into the Fall and closer to the holiday season.  We will be thinking about ways to celebrate all the good work being done by the Division. To that end, the theme of the November 13th Division staff meeting will be “thankfulness.”  Additional details about the agenda will be forthcoming.  In the meantime, to help us prepare for the meeting and in accord with our commitment to constantly improve, I am establishing a Culture and Climate Committee.  I envision the Committee to meet on a monthly basis to identify and discuss ways to enhance the culture, camaraderie, and staff morale within the Division. If you are interested in serving on the Committee, please see your director by close of business tomorrow, as we anticipate the Committee’s first meeting to occur later this week.

Not a single person in the Division volunteered to serve on the Committee.

Comm. Repollet has described reorganization efforts  as “DOE 2.0″ and noted that before his arrival the Department was “non-productive” and “self-serving.” I never heard this from DOE staff  pre-Repollet but I’m hearing it now.  The problems there run deep. If morale continues to sink and people with institutional knowledge continue to leave (either through choice or coercion) then the State’s oversight of district and school education of children with disabilities could start to mirror the morass at  Asbury Park. More troubling is whether problems cited are peculiar to one Division or emblematic of system-wide DOE decline.  I don’t have the answers. But I’ll continue to ask the questions.

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Here’s the OPRA request to Vernon Township Public Schools. I’ve left off the first page in order to assure anonymity (upon request); it asks for “Total amount in legal bills in reference to district matters relating to Carolyn Marano between 2014-2016 with regard to union matters, bullying allegations, grievance negotiations, and settlements of all claims against the district.”

 

 

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