AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Education disbanded a federally mandated panel Friday that was charged with advising the state on issues involving youths with disabilities, prompting concerns among former members that the move was retaliation for the panel’s questioning of department initiatives.
Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said Monday his decision is part of an effort to satisfy federal requirements.
The primary role of the Maine Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities is to monitor and make recommendations on the state’s compliance with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The state is required to report its progress on provisions of the federal law annually and must solicit feedback from a panel of advisers.
The 30-member advisory council was in the process of developing its report for this year when it was disbanded Friday by Bowen.
In an April 3 letter from the advisory council’s board to Bowen, the council stated that it had formed a subcommittee to address membership concerns voiced by the Department of Education, which previously had stated it intended to make changes to the council’s membership.
“MACECD members have been notified that there will be changes in membership to be announced in June,” reads the letter. “The first recommendation is that since MACECD is not currently in compliance with IDEA requiring representation (public and private service providers, a representative from the Office of the Coordination of Education of Homeless Children, and a representative of the state child welfare agency responsible for foster care), the highest priority should be filling those gaps, not replacing existing members … Current members do not know if they will be reappointed by you or the governor.”
In an April 19 response, Bowen wrote that he was disappointed with the council’s letter and minutes he reviewed of its March 16 meeting concerning a long-term strategic plan for education that the Department of Education released in January.
“I had asked the council for further feedback because pursuant to our meeting in December, it was my hope that a strong, collaborative relationship could be developed between the department and the council, one in which we as a state agency could benefit from the perspective and expertise that members of the council possess,” wrote Bowen. “Unfortunately, I found the minutes of the March 16 meeting at which my request was discussed to be disappointing. One committee appeared to spend most of its time discussing why much of what I asked about was not part of the council’s responsibilities or not relevant, while two other committees seemed satisfied to simply ask for further clarification and expertise to propose ways by which workable approaches on these issues could be developed. … Those developments suggest to me that it is time to move forward to revising the current structure and membership of MACECD, so that a new, more productive relationship between the council and the department can be established.”
Bowen wrote that he would work with Gov. Paul LePage to contact individuals who may be interested in serving on the council, including some former members, with the intention of meetings resuming as scheduled in September.
Historically, the advisory council has met during the school year and taken the summers off.
Before it was disbanded Friday, the council had meetings scheduled in May and June during which it planned to complete its Individuals with Disabilities Education Act recommendations. Under the act, the state is required to have an advisory council on special education issues in order to qualify for federal funding.
“No funding is being put in jeopardy,” said Matthew Stone, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “The current membership has never been appointed in accordance with the process as defined in the federal special education regulations. What we’re focused on now is making sure that we have a council in place that serves its duties under the federal regulations.”
Stone said that federal rules require states to have two advisory panels for special education services — one for children birth to age 2 and another for ages 3 to 20. The Maine Advisory Council on the Education of Children with Disabilities has been fulfilling both roles for several years, said Stone, who added that LePage and Bowen intend to create two separate groups.
Diane Smith Howard, who until recently was a staff attorney for the Disability Rights Center in Augusta, was a member of the council for several years. She said while she recognizes the department’s desire to follow federal guidelines, she believes that there were other reasons why Bowen chose to dissolve the group — including its review of Bowen’s strategic plan, which Howard said has little in it about special education.
“In my review of the strategic plan, I could use more information about the department’s plans in terms of how children with disabilities will be treated,” said Howard.
Tina Kenney, a Portland-area mother who has a child with disabilities, was a member of the council from October 2010 until Friday. She said the council merely was asking for “open collaboration” with the department concerning the strategic plan in an effort to improve the state’s special education programs.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Kenney of the council being disbanded. “We were questioning and asking specifics about [Bowen’s] strategic plan. Maybe he took offense to that or feels he shouldn’t be questioned. I don’t know where things are headed, but it’s kind of scary for kids who need a lot of support.”
Howard Wright of Southport, who has worked in child development services for decades and was a 13-year veteran of the advisory council, said the group didn’t want to be a “rubber stamper” for the department’s initiatives, including the strategic plan.
“The commissioner might perceive us as being not as helpful to him as he would like us to be,” said Wright. “Maybe the council and commissioner didn’t see eye to eye on what issues were important to each, but we wanted to be helpful. [Having the council disbanded] was a real blow to some really dedicated people. I just look back through the years and I think the council, state and the Department of Education have been very blessed with a lot of people who make up this former council.”
Other former members who would not allow themselves to be identified went further. One told the Bangor Daily News that he saw Bowen’s action as “a retaliatory act … payback and cleaning house.”
Stone rejected that notion.
“A new commissioner came in about a year ago and it became clear to him in the course of doing business that the members of this council were not appointed correctly,” said Stone. “This is part of an effort to bring this council into compliance.”
Wright said some of the council’s members won’t go quietly and that some of the final meeting on Friday was used to write letters of protest to the federal Office of Special Education, the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, the State Board of Education and the Maine Department of Education.
Kim Moody, executive director of the Disability Rights Center, said new governors and their administrations have every right to make their own appointments and that it happens frequently, but that in this case she feared a loss of continuity and expertise.
“That was quite a letter the commissioner wrote to the entire group,” she said. “Some of it was saying, ‘I don’t think you were doing your job.’ I think they thought they were doing a lot of good work.”