by George Deabold

In yet another defeat to the Parma City School District, the State Level Review Officer  Robert Mues has upheld the decision of Impartial Hearing Officer Ronald Alexander.  Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who have been battling the PCSD for the last five school years over the programming for their child Jacob, who has autism, won reimbursement for Jacob's attendance at the Monarch School for the 2007/08 school year.  The Monarch School is specially designed to meet the needs of children with autism and is located in Cleveland Heights.

The award of tuition for Monarch to Jacob largely centered on the PCSD failure to address Jacob's transition needs.  Although the PCSD staff tried to maintain that transition services would be offered, neither the IHO nor the SLRO credit ed the district witnesses testimony.  "It was obvious to everyone at the table that the District had no intention of serving Jacob, and that talk of transition services for Jacob were a sham," stated Andrew Cuddy, the New York attorney that handled the case for the Winkelmans.

Cuddy explained, "The reasoning of both the IHO and SLRO focused on the unique need of Jacob if he were to transition from Monarch back into a public school setting.  The District's plan, or better put, lack of a plan, surely would have caused injury to Jacob. The District maintained these services were not legally required under the law.  They should have gotten better legal advice."

 SLRO Mues commented negatively on the credibility of the school district's case.
"This SLRO also agrees that School District has failed to offer evidence that they were prepared to offer transition services or that the August 7, 2007 meeting was prepared to put together a transition plan.  Based upon the participants at the meeting, or, more specifically the lack of participants at the meeting, it is highly questionable whether the intent was to discuss a transition plan and clearly the appropriate individuals necessary to develop a plan were not present."

The rationale applied in the decisions in favor of the Winkelmans focused largely on the District's failure to offer appropriate transition services.

In 2007, the Winkelman battle with Parma gained national attention when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision of the 6th Circuit Court which had prevented the parents from representing their family's interest in court without an attorney. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that parents have substantive rights of their own under the IDEA, and the High Court remanded the case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals for further proceedings.
The August 21, 2008 ruling of State Level Review Officer Robert Mues ordered the Parma City School District to reimburse Jeff and Sandee Winkelman $68,500 for the 2007/08 school year attendance at the Monarch School.

The decision comes at a poor time for the Parma City School District, as they are currently embroiled in a kickback scandal that threatens the tax levy they hope to pass to make up for budgetary shortfalls.  Parma's special education budget alone is $700,000 short, perhaps due to the district spending nearly $1 million dollars each year on legal fees.

Parma Superintendent Sarah Zatik acknowledged that the district lost on the transition issue. "Just give us a chance to educate this child," she said, "Give us a chance, and if it turns out that our setting is not suitable, that's another story."  Mrs. Winkelman, when confronted with Zatik's comments replied, "They did have my child, and when I came into the classroom on one date I watched the teaching staff physically abusing my child.  They had their chance, and I will not put my child at risk in this district while it continues to warehouse children in these inappropriate classrooms with unprofessional staff."

In the School Watch interview with Mrs. Winkelman, we asked, "What is the next step?"  Winkelman responded, "Monarch and the lawyers have to be paid."  Andrew Cuddy, the attorney for the parents could not provide an exact number for the legal fees incurred by the parents, but estimated that there have been over 600 attorney hours spent on the case. It is nice to see this family turning the tide in their favor.

A SchoolWatch report by George Deabold,
The Ohio SchoolWatch website .
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