Cherry Hill School District found to be in violation of state SEPAG requirements

Local parents group which filed complaint vows vigilance on all district education matters

The Cherry Hill School District has been found non-compliant in regard to state regulations governing the relationship between the district and one particular special education parent group (SEPAG), the Cherry Hill Special Education PTA.

Michael Yaple, director of public information for the state Board of Education, reached out to The Sun via email on Oct. 18, forwarding a document containing the full investigation report.

Cynthia Rimol, complaint investigator with the Office of Special Education Policy and Dispute Resolution, found that, while the school district “has undertaken efforts to establish a special education parent advisory group, the district is determined non-compliant. Therefore, corrective action is necessary.”

In that document, Rimol suggests a corrective plan: “The district is directed to provide documentation demonstrating the establishment of a special education parent advisory group, to provide input to the district on issues concerning students with disabilities.” Also required within the correction plan is documentation of membership and any meetings held between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. These documents are to be produced to Rimol no later than Jan. 15, 2019.

When apprised of this turn of events, Jennifer Naddeo, president of CHSEPTA, stated:

“NJDOE found the district to be non-compliant in the implementation of the state requirement to have a special education parent advisory board providing input into policies impacting students with special needs. We were disappointed that the district chose to create a ‘new’ group, rather than using the existing CHSEPTA organization.”

“We were equally disappointed to hear that, after many years of acknowledging to CHSEPTA that it was its parent advisory group, the board indicated to the state that it does not acknowledge us in this manner. The district director of pupil services has met quarterly with CHSEPTA and has verbally acknowledged CHSEPTA as fulfilling the SEPAG role during these meetings. The statements made by administration have broken this trust,” she continued.

“CHSEPTA will remain active and will continue to be a parent-driven organization within Cherry Hill Public Schools. We will attend BOE meetings and provide comment on policies and practices the district is implementing, and we will be available to all families for advocacy and resources. CHSEPTA is still part of Cherry Hill Zone PTA, who has given us support throughout this process and recognizes us a special education parent advisory group. And CHSEPTA will watch to make sure regulations are followed and implemented in accordance with state and federal laws,” added Naddeo.

New Jersey Administrative Code requires each school district to have a Special Education Parent Advisory Group in place to provide input on issues concerning students with disabilities. CHSEPTA and district officials both previously confirmed that Cherry Hill Public Schools identified Cherry Hill Special Education PTA as the group to meet this regulation.

District Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche issued a statement upon the release of the report that read: “The Cherry Hill Public Schools received the investigation report from the New Jersey Department of Education. With the formation of the District Special Education Parent Advocacy Group (SEPAG), we will be in compliance with [N.J.A.C] 6A:14–1.2(h). We look forward to working with the SEPAG, which includes a parent from each of our 19 schools, as well as a parent representative for out-of-district students and a parent representative from the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network.”

According to Naddeo, CHSEPTA has asked repeatedly and publicly, over the last few years at board of education meetings, as well as through correspondence and face-to-face meetings, for the district to allow it to ask for the input that state regulations require. After being denied these requests, CHSEPTA filed a complaint with the NJDOE regarding non-compliance with this regulation.

CHSEPTA had originally informed Cherry Hill Public Schools that it had filed a complaint with the state board of education in early August.

Naddeo added the state sent a letter to both parties on Aug. 23 indicating there was initial merit, and gave the district 10 calendar days to meet with CHSEPTA and resolve. If the two parties could resolve the issue, the complaint would be closed. The letter also stated either party could request mediation to resolve the issue, but the state needed to be notified within the 10-day window. CHSEPTA contacted the state to request mediation, but never heard from the district to meet, and the district informed the state it was not interested in mediation.

The first communication CHSEPTA received from the district was an email on Sept. 18, informing the parents’ group it was forming a new Special Education Parent Advisory Board, 15 minutes before informing the public.

Naddeo said in a September email exchange with The Sun she feels the district has marginalized the parents and guardians of students with special needs. She said CHSEPTA had been raising concerns over its lack of input in district decision-making for more than a year, and the district didn’t make any changes, but after the complaint was filed, the district decided to eliminate this function of CHSEPTA.

Yaple previously confirmed a complaint from CHSEPTA was received, adding the state had until Oct. 16 to complete its review.

Meloche touched on the district’s planned Special Education Parent Advisory Group briefly at a late September board of education meeting, saying the district sent home a flier and letter to any students in the district with an individualized education program or 504 plan. At that time, he said the district is forming the group after reviewing state statutory guidelines requiring districts to have a special education parent advisory group.

Meloche added the district would be looking for parent representatives from every school and as well as out-of-district placements to serve on the new SEPAG. He also added the formation of the new parents’ group would not mean the end of CHSEPTA.