BoE Chair and Super on FOIA Requests & Complaints: “Like Blood Sport” to Some
Following several public meetings between Wilton residents and town officials that have turned contentious at times, and given the number of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and complaints filed against the school district with the FOIC (Freedom of Information Commission) and SEEC (State Election Enforcement Commission), GOOD Morning Wilton sat down for a Q&A with Wilton Public Schools’ superintendent Kevin Smith and Board of Education chairman Bruce Likly.
The FOIA ensures that citizens can ask for and receive information from government agencies. It’s an important right established by the federal government and protected at the state level. The numbers of FOIA requests and complaints in Wilton seems to be on the rise. One resident referred to them during the Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday evening, when she said that the subject of FOIAs had become “a dirty word” in Wilton.
On request from GMW, the district supplied digital copies of logs they have compiled of FOIA requests from May 2015 through Oct. 14, 2015, as well as a log of FOIA complaints that have been filed against the district. Those items are included at the end of this article, and are available to anyone who requests them from the district. We have blacked out the names of residents who have filed FOIA requests of the district.
GMW: FOI requests…Has it always been this way, that residents are using FOI requests to seek information? There’s a perceived level of contentiousness with so many FOIA complaints that are filed. It seems there’s a climate of distrust, mistrust, and “we’re going to sue.”
Bruce Likly: I’ve been on the Board now 6-plus years, and I’ve lived in Wilton 20 years, and I’ve never seen it like this. I think it’s a combination of two things: It’s in part some new people that have moved into town and brought this mentality with them. And I think there’s a group of folks that have been in town a long time, that with the economic crash of 2008, got overly frustrated with a lack of transparency and their voices not being heard.
GMW: Interestingly, whether it’s the change in administration here, there is more transparency and openness than seen in recent history, yet the distrust seems to be climbing and growing. What do you make of that?
Likly: I’ll challenge the statement that it’s climbing and growing, because we spend a lot of time trying to understand what’s behind that. The level of transparency we’ve driven over the last 36 months is greater than it’s been in years. I’ll venture to say we’ve only scratched the surface of where we’re headed and where we want to go.
There’s an old adage that the ultimate in transparency is putting your checkbook on the web for the world to see. I don’t think we can really get to that level, but that’s the level we aspire toward.
People need to understand that. There is nothing that we’re doing that we don’t want people to know about. With the exception of student privacy issues, we’re an open book. We’re trying to make that book as open as possible. It’s a 600-person organization and that transition is going to take a little time. We ask that people have some patience as we move in that direction.
What I find frustrating is there is a very small group of people—less than a dozen—that are treating the FOIA process like a blood sport. With every FOIA request they are sucking resources not only out of the school district but out of the BoF that’s full of volunteers, and out of the town.
To what end? Where is the benefit for Wilton, in the hundreds and hundreds of dollars in personnel costs and legal fees that it takes to respond to this. There are plenty of people that are questioning what we’re spending in legal fees to address these FOIA complaints. They don’t understand that in order to do the best for the town we need to get the lawyers involved in order to ensure that we’re following the letter of the law in the way that we respond. We don’t want to have to engage a lawyer but we engage a lawyer for the best for Wilton over time.
GMW: There seem to be many complaints filed, that then get dismissed or withdrawn. Are these unnecessary strains on the system?
Likly: I can’t comment on the complainant’s view of their necessity. I’m reasonably sure the complainants felt all of them have been necessary.
I’m disappointed that there have been a few where the District has been found to be out of compliance in one area or another and we are working to address those. From what I’ve seen however, the majority have been either withdrawn or dismissed. In fact, we received word today that another one was dismissed after investigation by the FOIC: 2015-147, one I specifically had to spend the morning in Hartford for, along with [former superintendent] Dr. Gary Richards and our attorney[–it] was dismissed.
GMW: That was a question raised at the Oct. 14 Parents’ Forum, about a contract between the district and an air quality consultant, and paying the district’s lawyers $10,000 to review the contract.
Likly: You buy a house, don’t you have a lawyer look over the purchase and sale agreement? Don’t you have a lawyer involved in a closing. Surely you don’t do it with a purchase of a car, but these are major transactions that have incredible legal ramifications. You wouldn’t write a last will and testament or a prenuptial agreement without an attorney; you wouldn’t sign an employee contract without having an attorney. We’re trying to use common sense, and when it’s a small issue, no; if it’s something we’ve addressed previously we don’t get a lawyer involved. But we’re talking about oftentimes decisions that have implications of hundreds and hundreds of taxpayer dollars.
The other point, too, is that we want to make sure that we’re taking the safety of the kids in mind. We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing everything to the letter of the law to keep our kids safe.
GMW: Is there an irony about being criticized for spending so much on lawyers, when you’re having to defend yourself against complaints in Hartford or elsewhere, when it comes to SEEC and FOIC complaints?
Kevin Smith: For me this is about getting better every single day. Nobody around here gets out of bed in the morning and says, ‘First thing we’re going to do is speak to one of our attorneys.’ That’s not on the agenda.
What is on the agenda is looking at all the systems we have in place and improving them. In order to ensure that we don’t miss anything, we do rely on our attorneys’ perspectives. And I see that as right now a short-term strategy so we can continue to develop the capacity. But at the end of the day, it’s really about getting better. Ensuring we’re doing things in a way that guarantees kids’ safety. That’s important.
It’s clear to me, after participating in the [Oct. 14] parents’ meeting around the Miller-Driscoll renovation project, there still remains a lot of concern, and parents in particular just want to be reassured.
For us part of getting better is being more effective at communicating all of the steps we are taking. I’m not sure that was the ideal forum to share the kind of information that needed to be shared that night so we have to go back and do that again in a different way to make sure everyone had the opportunity to get their questions asked and can really learn the various pieces, and get a deeper sense of what constitutes a genuine hazard and what doesn’t.
GMW: Many of the details have been discussed over the last couple years at BoE and other town/board meetings, at building committee meetings; questions get asked, they get answered; they get re-asked, they get re-answered. I get the sense that people are feeling, ‘We’re just not buying it.’
Likly: I was at another meeting after that [Oct. 14] M-D building parents’ meeting, and I gave a brief update on what the BoE was up to. An individual in the audience asked a question, saying, ‘There was a large number of people wanting to know what we’re going to do about the indoor air quality at Miller-Driscoll.’
Before I could even address the question, there was another person in the audience who took exception to that. He said, ‘I was at that meeting and there was a small number, in fact there were just a couple. There was a lot of time spent by the professionals talking about the indoor air quality, that in some cases the IAQ is better than they were anticipating for a building of that age.’
So I keep coming back to whether it’s a group of a small number of individuals that have some other motivation that has not been made aware to us yet.
If there are concerns out there then we are going to do everything in our power to address them. We’re going to get professionals involved that know the issues much better than we do as volunteers or even administrators. Building experts. Construction experts. Engineering experts. Indoor air quality experts. We will seek their advice and take their advice. Because the safety of your kids, my kids and everybody else’s kids is our number one priority.
GMW: Los Angeles is sometimes referred to as a ‘company town.’ Wilton is a ‘company town,’ and the business of Wilton is education in our schools. Understanding you have to address safety, you call it the number one priority. After safety and legal concerns, is education getting lost in all of this?
When you say you want to make the systems better, are you spending the right amount of time making the curriculum systems better, and teacher systems better, and student learning systems better? How much is getting diverted from focusing on those systems?
Smith: In my role, I try to manage as much of this as possible, with the BoE’s assistance. So that way the other Dr. [Chuck] Smith [assistant superintendent] and the rest of our instructional staff can focus on what matters most—improving the quality of the instruction in every single classroom across this district.
One of the challenges I’ve seen over the short time I’ve been here so far, is that Wilton has historically been a very high achieving town—the schools, the kids, we have incredibly bright people here all the way through. We need to make sure we’re focused on the right things for the 21st century. That requires quite a bit of changes—a lot of which you’ve written about already. That has to be their priority—focusing on what those changes are, managing them and being as strategic as possible, so we can accomplish the amount of learning that needs to take place—I’m talking adult learning. So we can guarantee that we’re providing the best education possible to children.
But we also have to tend to ‘business as usual.’ So when I think about the systems that need to be improved, I’m talking about systems like communication. At that Oct. 14 meeting, some of the folks in the room were just expressing what I thought was a sense of disconnect—they didn’t know what was going on, for whatever reason. I think the district can play a better role in sharing information and creating new avenues.
Going back to what Bruce just mentioned about bringing in the right experts, I also think we need to bring a different group of parents together, maybe in an advisory committee fashion or something so they can sit alongside those experts and help tell the story of what’s actually happening in the building. Because the air certainly has gotten a lot of attention, it’s a major reason why that building is being renovated—those systems are very, very old.
We just need to find ways to bring them in, those new ways need to become the ‘business as usual’ in the way that we interact with parents and other community members.
GMW: How much cost has there been to the district in dollars, time, and personnel that results from legal and FOIA concerns?
Likely: We’re getting to a point where we’re measuring those costs in teacher equivalents. If you consider the average teacher is costing $100,000 a year. We’re now approaching the cost of two teachers in legal fees and personnel time to address these issues.
One of the things that makes me so excited about the work that the Drs. Smith are doing, while it’s having an impact on our senior administrative team, they are aggressively focused on educational quality reform and enhancements. This [attention to legal matters] is having an impact on their personal time, it’s having an impact on our budget, but they’ve already put moves in place to address education quality across the district in ways that are incredibly exciting.
I wish people would come to BoE meetings, watch BoE meetings [on Ch. 78], look at what we’re doing from a strategy and direction perspective. It’s critical to understand that this board wants this school district to be one of the top school districts in the country. We’re already one of the top in the state, we want to be one of the top in the country. We will get there from an educational perspective.
As you saw from the dog search and the indoor air quality issue, we also want to be viewed as one of the safest. We want to win on all fronts.
GMW: I requested the logs, of FOI requests. It’s not just one person; there are a few. The scope of the requests is also interesting—it’s not just indoor air quality. You talk about not being able to give student information out, but there’s not a limit to anything else. Personnel records, …
Likly: I have a question for Dr. Smith: How many of those FOIA requests have come from individuals who have tried to sit down with the district prior to the request being directed at us?
Smith: I think a couple. I think there are some folks here in the community really present as trying to understand, and they’ve made inquiries and are spending time trying to understand. But I don’t think that’s universal.
The other piece that’s important to note is that people call up for information. We treat every request as a “FOIA request.” We respect the public’s right to know. It becomes challenging when the request becomes so broad and you don’t know where to begin, and it takes an incredibly long time to process the request.
GMW: As in ‘all personnel records and evaluations…’
Smith: That would be one of those. We have 600-plus employees. That’s significant…
GMW: That sounds like a roomful of documents.
Smith: Sure. How much time, given what our focus and priorities are, there’s a great deal of complexity we manage here. So trying to be responsive and respectful to those requests, but also not let it consume the entire district. That becomes a challenge.
Likely: People need to understand that legally we’re obligated to respond to those requests. Every resource we put toward requests, such as that one, which is so incredibly broad, takes away from teaching. I’m trying to understand to what end. If you have a specific question, let’s get you a specific answer. But to what end? We’re talking hundreds of man hours. To what end?
There’s a cost to Dr. Smith. We pay Dr. Smith $200,000 a year. You can do the math on what a 40-hour work-week looks like 50 weeks a year. He’s expensive.
Smith: Who works 40 hours?
Likly: [laughs] Well, you only get paid for 40 hours. You can say he spends half of his time working for free.
GMW: Was it like this in your previous district, Bethel, the climate around FOIA?
Smith: No. There were some routine requests periodically. Someone would ask for a contract, or every now and then someone would be looking for other information. But no, it’s been a fairly intense experience.
Again, for me our goal is to be responsive, and we want to do it in a respectful and timely manner. And as I look at the systems we put in place around it, we’ve gotten better, and we’ll get better still as we go along. But it is challenging.
Likly: When we look at the log of all the FOIA requests we’ve gotten, one of the things we’ve been kicking around is perhaps putting all the information that people request up on the website. There are legal implications and some issues we have to wrestle with: we have to make sure that all documents that have any student information are fully redacted so we don’t violate any FERPA [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] issues. But we can certainly make the log available to you, you’re welcome to that. And we’re looking into perhaps even putting the large portions of the information that has been requested out there for the public to see as well.
GMW: You made a comment before, that this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg in terms of where you want to go with being open. What other ideas are you talking about? What does that mean?
Likely: One of the things we’re in the process of doing right now is making our BoE meetings available real time, via the web. Making it easier for people to see those meetings when they’re not in Wilton and pull them up in the future.
We’re also toying around with the idea of Twitter feeds for our meetings, so that if people had questions and they weren’t able to get to the meeting during public comment, could we conceivable field a question or comment that way.
This is the people’s district. This isn’t the BoE’s district or the administration’s district. It’s the citizens of Wilton’s district. The citizens of Wilton need to realize that’s the way we operate and that’s what we believe.
I’ll put the one caveat in there, which is I will push back if there is a small group of people that is trying to hijack our operations based on unrealistic requests for information, when that takes away from the job we have to do to educate kids and keep them safe.
Smith: The only thing I would add to that is I’ve spent the entire fall working with our webmaster and going through the website and taking down old content, reorganizing, and coming to a point where we’ll be posting new content. For example, all of these IAQ documents will find a home under the facilities tab. We’ll continue to post as much as we can so people have access to it in a very organized way.
Likly: we’re looking at having more parental involvement as well. Getting parents engaged and reengaged with the schools in productive ways and we’re looking for feedback. I think we’ve proven to people that if they send an email to the Board of Ed email address, they’re going to get a response—oftentimes within the half-day, some cases within minutes. We want their input. The collective thinking of an entire community is going to make our school district better.
The other thing I wrestle with, in looking at some of these requests, is that within a small group of people in town it seems they think there’s some sort of conspiracy going on. There’s something subversive. Money must be getting rampantly misallocated, and people must be doing back room deals.
I just don’t live that way. I don’t live in a world of conspiracy. I live in a world of believing that the vast majority of people wake up every morning trying to do the best job possible. And that goes for the countless volunteers and the PTA, on the boards in town and within our administration.
I’ve now dug really deeply into this organization—the board of education and administration—for the past six years. With a couple of minor, minor exceptions, we have amazing people here who work incredibly hard, every day of the year. Do we have issues? Yes, we have 600 employees so if you look at any population of 600 employees any place in the world, you’re going to see the law of averages. You’re going to see issues. The question is what do we do when we see those issues. The track record will prove that we address effectively, using common sense and swiftly.
It’s hard to live as a conspiracy theorist. You know what? It’s a good town and it’s a good group of people to work with. I live here because I choose to and I really enjoy everybody who’s putting their heart and soul into making this community better and believing and seeing the good.
We’ve done an audit of our special education services to make it better. The findings of that report were fascinating. We’ve been very open in sharing that report and sharing how we intend to use it to make that program better.
We are looking at doing a broad financial audit of the entire district to make the district better. Everything we do is to make it better. It’s not to increase costs, it’s not to increase hardship, it’s not to uncover subversiveness. It’s to make the district better. We’re starting from a position of strength. We’re polishing the diamond. But we’re going to do everything in our power to make it a better, better community.
GMW: You get criticized for the experts and consultants you bring in to do those audits, that you bring them in to defend what you’re doing.
Smith: For whatever reason, there is ongoing mistrust. I don’t have any personal skin in the game. We get top-rated hygienists. I have no other preference other than making sure it’s an expert who can give us good, legitimate feedback.
I really admire the work our BoE is doing, because from day one, they’ve said, ‘We’re about polishing the diamond and getting better. So do what you need to do to make that happen.’
I really appreciate that Bruce brought up the Special Education/Special Services study. That’s a huge piece of our budget, and that’s a glaring example of where the cost increases outpace just about everything else. That’s a tremendous focus. I believe very firmly that people do the best they can do on any given day with what they know how to do, and now we have some new information and we’re putting together a plan that’s going to help us be even better and be more effective in the services we provide children.
Likly: You can look at almost any area we’ve focused on in the past 36 months. You can see we sought the advice of experts, and son of a gun, we took the advice of those experts. Sometimes experts will have contradicting points of view, we understand that. We also understand the importance of triangulating on information.
So you look at the enrollment projections, there are three different sets of data out there. We’re taking that information and we’re using other information available to us to make the best, educated decision we can going forward. We believe that, while enrollment is declining right now, it will start to grow substantially. People need to understand that the availability of housing inventory in Wilton of homes that could house school-aged children is not declining, it’s growing. The economy is getting better. The projections for birth rates are going up. So while enrollment may be going down right now—and it may go down for the next couple of years—we think the right decision for Wilton is to take the long view and to prepare appropriately going forward. And I think we’ll see an increase within the next 6-8 years. Only time is going to tell whether we’re correct in that assessment or not.
Look at where we’re headed with education quality. We’re taking the exact same approach. Look at the change we made a few years ago with Singapore math, moving away from Chicago math. It’s that same kind of analysis that we do.
We were slow on the uptake of Common Core. It’s in part because we needed to evaluate it and make sure it was truly something that was going to survive. People forget that there was a lot of controversy with Common Core, and there was some belief that it was going to die. So why would we put our precious resources behind something that may not actually survive.
Well, we were proven wrong in that situation and we’re adjusting appropriately for it. And anybody that’s watched the BoE meetings, will realize that we have a plan in place to get back ahead of that curve pretty quickly. I’m excited to see that.
If people have other areas within the district that needs focus, we want to hear about it, because we will do something about it.
GMW: You are one of the few boards in Wilton’s town government that has two places for public comment at your meetings.