“Establishing” a SEPAC

By Leslie M. Leslie, MassPAC Coordinator and APPLE Faculty Leader, FCSN

Over the years, I have heard many interpretations on the School Committee’s obligation under the law to “establish” a parent advisory council on special education. The word “establish” has a broad definition including according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary – all of which are very appropriate to SEPACs:

• to institute (as a law) permanently by enactment or agreement
• to make firm or stable
• to introduce and cause to grow and multiply
• to bring into existence: found
• to bring about, effect
• to put on a firm basis : set up
• to put into a favorable position
• to gain full recognition or acceptance of

Most school districts delegate the coordination of the SEPAC to the administrator of special education and rely on the SEPAC to come before the School Committee on an annual basis to report on matters that pertain to special education. The law states, the SEPAC “shall receive assistance from the school committee without charge, upon reasonable notice, and subject to the availability of staff and resources.” Usually this is in the form of free meeting space, access to copying of materials, a presence on the district website and options to post notices in district publications, such as principals’ newsletters, similar to the resources provided to other school parent groups.

Once the SEPAC is established, it sets its own by-laws and operational procedures and functions independently. The SEPAC is a public body and must follow the Open Meeting and Public Records laws, but can meet in any public accessible space, such as the Public Library. SEPAC meetings are open to the public and membership shall be offered to all interested parties. The SEPAC can, in its by-laws, delegate decision-making/voting to a specified class of members – such as parents or guardians of children with special needs. It is advisable that the SEPAC share their meeting agendas with the school district, but the agenda, speakers and other activities are under the control of the SEPAC and its executive board.

The SEPAC can create a spin-off group such as a Parent Support Group that can meet to share parental concerns or personal situations outside of a public meeting. This group does not have to follow the open meeting law as no SEPAC business would be conducted.

MassPAC can assist any parent or group of parents who wish to form a SEPAC. We suggest that an Interim Team begin the process, contact their district special education administrator to notify them of their intentions and start to hold meetings to develop a group and adopt a set of by-laws. Once by-laws are adopted, formal elections can be held to elect officers. An option to have two or more co-chairs under a SEPAC’s by-laws helps meet the challenging demands on parents’ time, especially those raising a child with special needs. The newly formed SEPAC officers should be sworn in by the Town Clerk and sign a certification of knowledge of the Open Meeting laws. They should also request an opportunity to come before the School Committee to announce the formation of the SEPAC and instruct the School Committee of their advisory role under the law.

It takes parents to form and run a SEPAC, although the school district is a key player to help bring it into existence, help put on a firm basis to grow and multiply, assist the SEPAC to gain full recognition of its advisory role, as well as put the SEPAC in a favorable position to collaborate with other parent organizations and the whole school community – truly “established”!