Special education director faces ouster
A battle is brewing over the pending dismissal of the Menlo Park City School District's director of special education at the end of the school year.
The school board will meet in closed session on Tuesday, March 12, to vote on Superintendent Maurice Ghysels' recommendation to boot Olivia Mandilk from her position as head of special education, which she's held for eight and one-half years.
The program works with more than 1,000 of the district's students, Ms. Mandilk said, providing classes and other services for children with developmental and other disabilities and special health needs.
Ms. Mandilk said she had received no warning or indication that her job performance was a problem before Mr. Ghysels told her that he and the school board want to "change the direction" of the program she leads, called the Student Services Department.
Mr. Ghysels told the Almanac that he's forbidden by law from discussing personnel matters. Regarding his reported desire to change the direction of the program, he said, "I want to make sure the parents understand the we will continue to provide" quality education for their children. On the job for a year and a half, Mr. Ghysels has overseen changes in other divisions, such as language arts and math, in the interests of "continuous improvement," he said.
But according to some parents, the special education program doesn't need a change in direction. "I am completely floored and upset and I don't get it," Jennifer Kaufman, a mother of a son with special needs, told the Almanac. The department was "given a new direction eight and a half years ago" with the arrival of Ms. Mandilk, "and she's been brilliant. ... She took a program from nothing and built a terrific department."
Ms. Kaufman, who said she intends to speak to the board at its March 12 meeting about the matter, said that, in addition to her experience working with Ms. Mandilk as a parent, she has worked for years placing developmentally disabled children coming out of early intervention preschool in public elementary schools "from Burlingame to Santa Clara. And there's no district like Menlo Park for (providing services to) kids" with special educational needs.
"Olivia is an advocate of student achievement, and she has an incredible team that she supports, and ... allows them to do their job."
In a letter to her staff of 56 and parents whose children are in the program, Ms. Mandilk noted that no staff member or, as far as she could tell, parents "were asked to provide input regarding changing the direction of the department. I have not been informed regarding what direction the superintendent intends to take and what the implications are for students."
Regarding the school board's reported desire to change the program's direction, board President Terry Thygesen said she believes Ms. Mandilk misinterpreted what the superintendent said during their meeting. "I regret that it seems that Olivia has misinterpreted a private discussion about her professional future with the district as signaling a significant change in the direction of ... the department," Ms. Thygesen said — a statement echoed a short time later by Mr. Ghysels.
She also noted that the board isn't involved in personnel matters "except to approve, or not, the superintendent's recommendation."
At least one parent is applauding Ms. Mandilk's dismissal. Susan Walton, a parent who filed numerous legal actions against the district over its special education program and who founded Peninsula Parents of Special Needs Kids (PPSNK), wrote of Ms. Mandilk on the group's website, "This woman marginalized countless students and spent freely on attorneys to fight their frustrated parents." Ms. Walton couldn't be reached before press time to elaborate on the statement.
When asked to comment, Ms. Mandilk said, "We have never marginalized a child in this district." Ms. Walton and her husband came to the district from another school district, whose special education program they had filed legal actions against, and shortly after coming to the Menlo Park district, the couple began filing legal actions here, Ms. Mandilk said. The district won each case, she added, and since the couple moved from the district, "our attorney fees are very low."
Ms. Mandilk was hired by former superintendent Ken Ranella after working for about 27 years as a teacher, consultant, special education administrator and director in other school districts. For a short time, she did double-duty in the same role for the Las Lomitas School District, she said, and when the districts decided to each have full-time directors, both offered her the position.
She chose the Menlo Park district, she said, because it was larger and "there was a lot more work to be done." She told Mr. Ranella she wanted to retire in the district, she said.
When Mr. Ghysels asked to meet with her — they met regularly, nearly every week, she said — she "knew something was wrong" when she entered the room and the personnel director was also present, she said. She was offered three options: to retire, to resign, or to request a teaching position if something becomes available, she said.
"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, but retiring this spring would mean "financial disaster." That's 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.
She said she didn't press Mr. Ghysels for details about his plans for her department once she left, not only because she was stunned by the news, but also because Mr. Ghysels told her before the meeting ended that the district would help her with future work prospects — or not — depending on her reaction to her dismissal, she said.