“Notes from the Board Table” is the regular update from Bruce Likly, chairman of the Wilton Board of Education. 

The Board of Education voted last week to approve the 2015-16 operating budget developed by Superintendent Kevin Smith. In doing so, the Board “takes ownership” of the budget, and will work to refine the proposal before it is presented to voters at the May town meeting.

Before I get into the specifics, I’d like to thank those residents who have taken the time to involve themselves in the budget process. The Board is truly grateful to those who attended our December “Community Conversation,” the January public hearing, or who have emailed with their comments. I can’t stress enough how important this feedback is – the Board truly does listen to what members of the community have to say.

With regard to the details of the budget, I’d like to draw your attention to two highlights. Please keep in mind that the entire budget document is posted on the District website, and can be accessed here.

Special Education

As you are likely aware, special education traditionally accounts for a large share of budget increases. While no one disputes our obligation to provide students with the special services they need, there is shared frustration that the rate of annual increases has become unsustainable. To address this, superintendent Smith and assistant superintendent for special services Ann Paul initiated a review of all special education programs. A cursory review revealed an “achievement gap” that exists between Wilton’s special education students and non-special education students.

To better understand the reasons for this achievement gap, the Board has agreed to enlist an outside consultant, District Management Council (DMC), to conduct a comprehensive analysis of special education services. Specifically, the study will have five intended outcomes:

  1. Understand the reasons for the achievement gap.
  2. Compare Wilton’s practices against research-based best practices.
  3. Identify areas of improvement and key strategies for improvement.
  4. Develop and implement an action plan that will enable the Wilton public schools to deliver high quality services in the most cost effective manner.
  5. Generate momentum to initiate positive instructional change.

District Management personnel will be on site over the next few weeks, observing our students, interacting with teachers and meeting with parents and staff.  District Management has an impressive record of results; while the study will cost $200,000, we expect the resulting recommendations to raise student achievement and provide annual savings, beginning in 2015-16, of at least $400,000.

This is an exciting endeavor, that will have the dual effect of helping our students while simultaneously addressing special education budget increases. I will share DMC’s recommendations when they become available, but wanted to keep the community informed, since special education is such an important part of our overall budget.

Curriculum Restructuring

I mentioned this in a previous column, but it bears repeating. Included in the 2015-16 operating budget, are funds necessary for a structural overhaul in our K-8 curriculum support practices. Currently, we rely on a team of “instructional leaders” who, in addition to their regular classroom duties, provide leadership and support to their colleagues in their designated curriculum area.

However, as our curriculum has become more rigorous, and as teaching practices have changed so dramatically, it has become clear that the current structure is not sufficient.

Going forward, we will rely on a network of two full-time “curriculum coordinators,” who will establish clear guidelines for K-8 instruction. One coordinator will focus on the Humanities (English/Language Arts and Social Studies), while our other coordinator will focus on Math and Science.

The curriculum coordinators will be supported by a network of six “instructional coaches.” The instructional coaches will guide and support our teachers as they integrate curriculum standards into their daily lesson plans. Instructional coaches will provide coaching, assessments and support to teachers on a daily basis – something that currently is not available. The coaches and curriculum coordinators will also develop critically needed professional development for our teachers, which offers access to innovative thinking and best practices in key subject areas.

I highlight these two areas – special education and curriculum development – for two reasons:  (1) Each represents a significant step forward in improving existing practices; and (2) Each will have positive implications for student learning.

Budget season is never a particularly fun time of year, but this year, I’m happy say, the 2015-16 spending plan includes innovative programs that will directly benefit our students, and at a manageable cost.