Uploaded: Wed, Mar 13, 2013, 11:56 am
Special education director forced out
The school board approved the removal of the Menlo Park City School District's director of special education from her job last night (March 12), but not until the defiant director publicly accused Superintendent Maurice Ghysels of bullying staff members and creating a "traumatic, hostile workplace" since he took the district's top post in July 2011.
Olivia Mandilk, the district's director of the Student Services Department for the last eight and a half years, will no longer hold her current post after the end of the school year, but will be reassigned within the district, said Mr. Ghysels.
Board President Terry Thygesen said the board voted unanimously in closed session to approve Mr. Ghysels' recommended change in the department's leadership.
Ms. Mandilk, members of her staff, and a number of parents whose children are or have been served by the department attended the emotional meeting, speaking during the public comment period before the board went into closed session to make its decision.
Most speakers supported Ms. Mandilk's leadership of the department, which provides instruction and other services for students with developmental and other disabilities and special health needs. But two parents encouraged the board to support the change, saying Ms. Mandilk and most of the department staff were unresponsive to the needs of some children in the program and resisted parents' attempts to communicate and work for improvements.
During the comment period, there were some tears on the part of Student Services staff who showed up to support their boss, and applause from the audience, mostly by Ms. Mandilk's supporters. But high drama prevailed when Ms. Mandilk expanded the discussion of her dismissal to Superintendent Ghysels' leadership.
Holding up photocopied images of leadership staff members who have left their jobs since Mr. Ghysels came on board, she spoke of each departure or extended sick leave, alleging they were the result of the superintendent's bullying and other forms of mistreatment. Six of 12 members of the district's leadership team, she said, were "targeted victims" of Mr. Ghysels' "unprofessional conduct and bullying behavior" before they either agreed to retire or became too ill to continue working.
Responding to the comments, Mr. Ghysels said the next day: "It's hard to be a leader and make difficult personnel decisions. I know that people are not always going to be happy with those decisions." He said he wouldn't comment on the charges of bullying.
"I want to make sure that parents and their kids rest assured that we're going to continue to provide outstanding service" in the program, he told the Almanac.
In response to Ms. Mandilk's accusations, board President Thygesen told the Almanac: "I am fully confident that Dr. Ghysels is leading our district effectively."
Ms. Mandilk told the Almanac earlier this week that she had received no warning or indication that her job performance was a problem before Mr. Ghysels called her into his office on Feb. 22 and told her that he and the school board want to "change the direction" of the program she leads.
She said she was offered three options: to retire, to resign, or to request a teaching position if something becomes available. "I can't afford options one or two, so I selected option three," she said, adding that in addition to work in the special education department she is also credentialed to teach social sciences at Hillview Middle School. She won't know whether there will be a job for her for months, she said.
To retire now, she added, would mean "financial disaster" because she will be only 59 by the end of the school year, and retiring before she's 61 or 62 would shrink her pension by about $36,000 a year.
After Ms. Mandilk's comments during the board meeting, Ms. Thygesen told those present that board members are restricted by law from commenting on personnel matters. Mr. Ghysels said he wanted parents to be assured that services for their children will continue even as the direction of the program shifts -- a direction "based on collaboration" that will involve teachers and staff.
Posted by Sentinel,
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2013 at 9:44 am
Sentinel is a registered user.
According to training that I received regarding the Brown Act, if the majority of the Board receives written communication in connection with a Board Agenda item more than 72 hours prior to a Board meeting, the communication must be included in the Board Agenda packet. If it is not included in the Agenda packet, it must be made available to the public at the Board meeting. According to members of the Student Services Department, more than 72 hours prior to the March 12th Board meeting, members of the Student Services Department sent a letter to all of the Board members and the superintendent related to the Closed Session item, "Public Employee Discipline/Dismissal/Release."
The letter was not included in the March 12th Board Agenda packet, nor were copies of the letter made available to the public at the Board meeting. A member of the Student Services Department, Dawn Edgren, and a general education teacher from Encinal School, Karen Strohmaier, read the letter (below) to the public and the Board during the "Comments from the Audience" section of the Board meeting.
Superintendent Ghysels told the Almanac, "I want to make sure that parents and their kids rest assured that WE'RE GOING TO CONTINUE TO PROVIDE OUTSTANDING SERVICE" in the program. Why did the superintendent and the Board dismiss the leader of a district program that IS, in Ghysels' opinion, providing outstanding services?
Prior to making the decision to dismiss the director, why did Ghysels and the Board choose to NOT seek public input regarding the new direction that they want the department to take?
Exactly what IS the new direction that Ghysels and the Board want to take? Why?
March 4, 2013
To: Maurice Ghysels, Jeff Child, Maria Hilton, Joan Lambert, Laura Rich, Terry Thygesen
From: Members of the Student Services Department
It has come to our attention that Olivia will not be returning as Director of Student Services in the 2013-14 school year. We would like to recognize her accomplishments and achievements while she has worked as the Director of the Student Services Department in our District. Olivia coined the phrase, "Together We Make a Difference" as our department motto and this is Olivia's leadership style.
Olivia has over 30 years of experience in the field of special education. She has worked as a Para-educator, a Teacher, a Special Day Class Teacher, a Teacher for students with Emotional Disturbance, a SELPA and COE Director, and for the past 8˝ years, the Director of Student Services for the Menlo Park City School District. Olivia is a highly skilled professional and a visionary leader. She has always had an open-door policy for parents, specialists, teachers, para-educators, and administrators-creating time in her busy schedule to meet the varied needs of those with whom she works. Olivia works effectively and calmly with staff and parents even when faced with difficult challenges. Olivia is also a leader outside of the District as a vital member of the South County Directors Group and the SELPA Finance Committee. She is at the forefront of current trends in special education. Directors of other districts in the county seek out Olivia for her expertise, advice and counsel.
Olivia has established parent education and outreach programs in the District. She set up a Lending Library (using mostly ARRA funds) with over 250 books and DVDs for parents, staff, and para-educators to check out, including books in Spanish and books focusing on health issues. She created a robust, informational Student Services website and sends out regular parent-education newsletters through the website. The website includes a variety of resources for families, both to get to know the District and to get more information about disabilities in general. Olivia recently began a series of parent-education meetings to provide information and address issues related to parenting and educating children with disabilities. She has invited families who live outside the District to attend these meetings, providing outreach throughout San Mateo County. Parent education helps strengthen home-school continuity, which is vital to promoting children's learning and development.
Each of the schools in the District has benefited from Olivia's vision. She was instrumental in establishing the Occupational Therapy Clinic at Encinal and Heritage Oak Children's Center (which serves both students at HOCC and Laurel). She hired Occupational Therapists to work at each of the schools, instead of bringing in private, non-District employees to provide OT services. Olivia implemented the Learning Center model at Encinal, Oak Knoll, and Hillview. She recognized an unmet need for specialized curriculum for students with disabilities and, with input from teacher s, implemented curriculum programs throughout the Di strict. Olivia supports 504 Plans (accommodations to meet the needs of student s in general education). She works with administrators and counselors at each school to implement 504 Plans and policies to meet compliance. Olivia developed and designed monthly para-educator j ob-alikes for professional development. In 2006, she organized a District-wide staff development day with many relevant sessions presented by highly regarded professionals such as Fred Luskin, PhD, Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, a local expert on autism, Asperger Syndrome, and nonverbal learning disorders. Olivia's innovative style brings out the best in her staff. She has encouraged and supported staff to apply for Jeanie Ritchie Innovation grants and attend professional development opportunities to increase their skills. Olivia has begun to develop a more robust Health Services Department throughout the District by hiring qualified staff and applying for and receiving grants through the Sequoia Healthcare District to help support the financial need s of the Health Services staffing. For Olivia, the educational, social, and emotional needs of children in the District are primary, but she ensures their services are appropriate and cost-effective for the District.
Unfortunately, litigation is often part of special education and can be stressful for all involved. Olivia handles difficult litigation with ease and grace. She works professionally and effectively with District attorneys. She supports staff involved in litigation by providing background information about the issues surrounding disagreement, and she brings in accomplished attorneys who work with our staff to help calm their fears and prepare them for testifying in front of a judge. Because of Olivia's vast knowledge of special education law and her ability to work well with the parties involved, Menlo Park has prevailed in the majority of recent litigation.
Olivia's organizational skills are exceptional. She ensures IEP compliance through staff education and careful scrutiny of IEP documents. She has standardized policies and procedure s for the Department and in the most recent state-wide review in 2008-2009, Menlo Park City School District was the only district in the San Mateo County that had no findings of systemic noncompliance. Olivia has established a very professional Student Services Department and she holds monthly staff department meetings with a relevant, predetermined agenda. Olivia provides structured timelines for teachers so tasks are done in a timely manner.
Under Olivia's direction, members of the Student Services Department strive to provide appropriate services in the Least Restrictive Environment for children with disabilities. Olivia is very supportive of including students with disabilities in the general education program. Under Olivia's supervision, in the 2006-07 school year, the District Inclusion Program received a prestigious Kent Award. This honor is awarded to a handful of exemplary programs in San Mateo County. Olivia also spear-headed the task of bringing back two county classes of students with disabilities who had previously attended school in our district. While in the county classes, many of these students had to travel long distances in order to attend school and access services. Olivia hired highly qualified teachers for these classes and in the process, saved the district tens of thousands of dollars per year on transportation costs and other related costs of educating District children en outside of our attendance area. Children attending schools and accessing services in their own community creates a sense of belonging for the parents, children, and siblings.
Olivia was instrumental in developing, designing, and equipping the Heritage Oak Children's Center, which serves preschool-aged students with disabilities in the classroom and the Speech/Language Clinic and various District students in the Occupational Therapy clinic. Again, these are children who would have previously attended a preschool for students with disabilities outside of their neighborhood, at a greater cost to the District. The preschool in Menlo Park creates a great sense of belonging for District families.
Olivia's character is unquestionable. She is modest and humble; she does not call attention to her accomplishments. She treats members of the Student Services Department with respect, trust, and autonomy to succeed. When a staff member needs to make an improvement in his/her performance, she supports them and encourages improvement. Olivia sets very high standards for her Student Services Department staff and helps them to reach those standards through staff development and consistent mentoring. She gives praise when it is due and helps teachers improve performance when needed.
It has been an honor to work with Olivia and get to know her over the last eight years. Her professionalism, expertise, kindness, and leadership have literally put Menlo Park Student Services Department on the map. It is a known fact that families who live in other parts of the country seek out our district so that they can access optimal special education services for their children. We think you will see from the comments above how much we appreciate and respect Olivia's leadership and professionalism. We owe Olivia a special debt of gratitude. She has transformed our department.
Members of the Student Services Department,
"Together We Make a Difference"
Cc: Olivia Mandilk
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