Special ed parents win challenge to OPRF staffing levels

Parent alleges conflict of interest between board president, law firm

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Oak Park and River Forest High School will change its policy of admitting late registrants to special ed classes after the Illinois State Board of Education recently ruled against the school in a complaint filed by the parents of an OPRF special education student.

The complaint filed by parents Scott Berman and Terry Burke in August, charged that an extended school year (ESY), 6-week summer class for special education students, including their daughter, was improperly staffed and overcrowded.

The parents told the District 200 school board of the state ruling at its meeting last Thursday.

The complaint alleged that the class of roughly 17 students had only one certified special education teacher and that classroom assistants performed additional instruction. The students, according to the state board's investigation, were split into three groups for reading instruction. One group was instructed by the teacher while class assistants instructed the other students. The groups were not all in the same class, according to the state board's findings.

The state board found OPRF in violation and ordered the school to submit class lists of student names and disabilities, and requested paperwork showing staff assignments, names of instructors and specific certifications.

According to the state board's ruling, "the role of the classroom assistants should have been to support the instruction provided to the student, rather than to provide direct instruction."

The state board also ruled that the ESY class exceeded the maximum enrollment of 15 students for instructional classes and services for children with disabilities.

"I'm very happy that an official agency has demonstrated some accountability," said Berman. "We've been asking for accountability for the special education department for some time."

Linda Cada, director of special education at OPRF, said the school accepted two additional students in this program after the enrollment deadline. She added that the school would meet the state board's recommendation.

"Because of this complaint, we will no longer be as accommodating," she said. "The ramifications of this complaint means we will have to stick very strictly to the deadlines for accepting students. We understand the busy life special education parents have and sticking to the deadline is not always their preference."

Parents allege Rigas conflict

Last Thursday's meeting also turned contentious during open session when Berman questioned the relationship between the school's law firm and school board President John Rigas.

Berman suggested a "conflict of interest," between Franczek & Sullivan, the school's law firm, and a software company which is owned, in part, by Rigas. The law firm is a customer of Microsystems, a software company co-founded by Rigas in 1997. Microsystems specializes in document-conversion software.

Berman said Microsystems made "considerable money" selling software services to Franczek & Sullivan. The law firm did purchase a software license from Microsystems in July 2001 for $7,500, according to Rigas, who said he wasn't aware that the law firm was among his company's clients until about two years ago. The firm also paid a customer service fee for telephone support and updates to software in 2001, Rigas said.

Rigas, however, countered that Franczek & Sullivan represented far less of the company's total revenues, than had been alleged. He also indicated that the law firm has represented the school long before he founded the company in 1997.

Rigas, who was elected to the board in late 2000 but was seated in April 2001, said there was no basis to the charges.

"I'm not involved in sales," he said. "This [purchase] involved our tech department."

Berman said that he was only pointing out what was on public record and was not attacking Rigas' integrity.

Franczek & Sullivan attorney John Relias, who represented the school in the special education complaint, called the suggestion of a conflict of interest, "absolutely ridiculous."

Several of Franczek & Sullivan's founding partners, Relias said, had represented the school since the early 1980s. They went on to start their own law firm in 1994 and took on OPRF among its clients.

"This just shows how scurrilous these charges are because there's no basis for them," he said.

In regards to the state board's ruling against OPRF, he called it, "a technical ruling," and said there was nothing in the ruling indicating that the students were not learning.

"The bottom line is that the students were progressing and that's all that really matters," he said.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com


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