Photo/Jeff J Mitchell/Thinkstock Special education students are occasionally the subject of parent complaints in Washoe County. It’s a touchy area when the matter becomes public.

The Washoe County School District is making steady progress on special education issues and is on the verge of being in full compliance with federal requirements, according to a Nevada Department of Education official.

“Further, from my perspective along with evidence-based information, I believe Washoe County School District (WCSD) has made improvements in ensuring compliant practices relative to special education over the page year,” wrote state special education director Marva Cleven in an email message to Washoe County schools superintendent Pedro Martinez.

The message described changes for the better in Washoe County and said only a single nearly-completed response to a parental complaint prompted a letter from the state to WCSD about meeting a federal compliance deadline.

Cleven wrote the message, a copy of which was obtained by the RN&R, after the Reno Gazette-Journal published an article portraying the special education situation in Washoe County as fairly confrontational and harsh between the state and the district.

The RGJ piece, reported by Siobhan McAndrew and published Aug. 28, ran under the headline “State tells school district to make changes or risk funding.” It described a letter sent to the school district by state schools superintendent Dale Erquiaga. The letter references the individual education program (IEP) drawn up in response to a complaint from a parent, Larry Dailey, about his daughter’s services.

The RGJ article read in part, “In his letter to the school district, Erquiaga said the district did not follow a checklist to monitor the requirements laid out in Dailey’s daughter’s IEP. The letter mandates that training for all special education teachers, related service providers and representatives regarding the policies and procedures checklist be completed by the district by Sept. 30. It says by Oct. 1, the district must notify all parents of children with an IEP during the 2014-15 school year that there is checklist. It also mandates that the IEP checklist be implemented retroactively for all students at the same school as Dailey’s daughter from January to June and for those missed items provide compensatory education services.

“Marva Cleven, the director of special education for Nevada Department of Education, said she has never seen a letter like this go out to a school district. She said it is a tough message to the district to fix things that fell through the cracks. Despite a warning that says the district’s noncompliance could result in the loss of federal funds, she said that is unlikely. ’That has never happened in Nevada,’ she said, but added there is no room for mistakes involving children with special needs.”

When she read the RGJ article, an apparently angry Cleven fired off the message to Washoe Superintendent Martinez telling him that the article misrepresented her interview with McAndrew and that she had told the journalist that the state department has confidence that the Washoe district had made progress and would continue to do so.

The reporter declined to respond in detail but said she stands by her reporting.

Cleven’s message to Martinez said that of six corrective action plans (CAP) in response to six complaints against WCSD, the state had already received five CAPs and the sixth was “partially fulfilled.” All such complaints must be “100 percent” complete in order for compliance to be achieved, she wrote, and that sixth uncompleted CAP was the only reason the Erquiaga letter went out to the district.

In an interview this week, Washoe special education director Frank Selvaggio said he received the Erquiaga letter on Aug. 22 and completed the last CAP and sent it off to the state on Aug. 26, two days before the RGJ article appeared.

There are 8,400 special education children in the district and nine complaints have been filed with the state, six of them found to warrant action.

“It says that we will respond appropriately when these things come up,” said Selvaggio, describing the content of the CAP. He said he could not respond in detail about specific complaints because of privacy concerns.

He blamed himself for the last CAP not being delivered until Aug. 26, saying that an aide was burdened with work and he didn’t realize it until late. “We are making progress in several areas,” Selvaggio said.

Cleven’s message to Martinez singled Selvaggio out for attention, saying that his work had brought the school district up to speed on special education issues.

“Frank Selvaggio has been highly proactive in ensuring that compliance is at the forefront of district priorities,” Cleven wrote. “I began meeting monthly with Frank beginning in October 2013, and we continue to make those meetings a priority. … Through these monthly meetings we discussed ways in which he could make improvements including his idea of hiring a Compliance Officer within the Special Services Office.”

She wrote that Selvaggio’s work contributed to “the very few numbers of complaints that were filed during last school year.”

Other WCSD officials were also upset by the newspaper article and were sharp in their criticism. One said the article’s language was unnecessarily severe:

“I don’t see where anything in there supports the way it is spun. No one in there says there is a rough relationship between us and the state office, but that’s the impression left.”

Special education is one of the sources of friction between the Washoe County School Board and Martinez. School board members feel they have had to keep pushing Martinez to act in the field. In a July 29 court filing, they cited the problem as one of the reasons they put the superintendent on paid leave on July 21. The filing said Martinez ignored “repeated complaints” from parents—particularly parents of special education students, subjecting the school district to bad publicity.

The RGJ article prompted Cleven to write to Martinez that McAndrew “twisted my comments.” It also read:

“Yes, it’s a tough letter to have to send and receive, which I shared with [McAndrew]. However, I never said that it’s a ’tough message.’ I apologize for the spin that she placed [on] my comments, and I can assure you that my tone relative to the district was positive at all times, and that I have confidence” that the district will follow through with all directive[s] in the enforcement action. It’s unfortunate that she didn’t include any of that in her article.”

When contacted, McAndrew said, “My only comment I have is that I stand by my reporting that day, and we urge people to contact us if they have concerns.” She said the newspaper encourages readers to use letters to the editor and similar avenues when they are unhappy about news coverage.

“We welcome that kind of feedback,” she said.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...