At its Oct. 26 meeting, the Board of Education addressed how the schools have been progressing with implementing recommendations made two years ago in a report from District Management Council (DMC). The report came after the district asked DMC “to conduct a thorough review of current special education practices, expenditures and results.” DMC surveyed parents, principals, administrators, teachers and staff, and conducted an extensive data review, and benchmarked Wilton’s special ed practices against those of other high performing school districts,” as then-BOE chair Bruce Likly described.

Since the DMC report was presented to school officials in the spring of 2015, its findings are often referred to during budget talks. Critics of increases in education budget spending often point to a generalized conclusion that, “Wilton schools could save $2 million” if DMC’s recommendations were implemented in special education practices.

During the Oct. 26 meeting, administrators gave a high-level overview of how they are building strategies for executing the changes suggested by DMC. Following a presentation from Wilton’s two assistant superintendents, BOE member Glenn Hemmerle raised the question of how to demonstrate to those who criticize district leaders at budget time that the much buzzed about $2 million savings isn’t going to necessarily materialize right away.

“At some point we’re going to have to figure out how to quantify, address and respond to the magic $2 million that was projected in the report, that we were going to save, if we adopt and take the actions that they put forward,” he said.

School Officials Do Plan on Implementing Changes Suggested by DMC

Among the areas addressed by the report were ways in which the district was intervening with children who were struggling with reading.

Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for special education services, gave an overview of how the district will approach identifying, intervening and improving outcomes for students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia. The DMC report made recommendations, emphasizing evidence-based approaches to better identification, intervention, progress monitoring, response, and parent communication.

“The first piece is, we will be sharpening the tool kit of our staff at the building level to diagnose, to understand what are the diagnostic criteria to identify reading disorders in children, earlier.”

Leonardi also discussed how the district was addressing the need for earlier intervention.

“One of the areas that we need to refine and develop are our progress-monitoring tools. We need to be able to quickly identify short, sweet, quick assessments, formative assessment of students that is responsive to that instruction to so we can change things when progress is lackluster, sooner,” she said, explaining that while students in general education are assessed three times a year, students in special education will be assessed much more regularly.

“So that when that progress is lackluster, we don’t wait six months to know. We’ll know if four or five weeks, and be able to respond to that by adjusting instruction in a myriad of ways.”

Leonardi added that assessments needed to be done in a way that didn’t take the teachers away from instruction. “The worst thing possible is to ask for more assessment and then they do less teaching. We don’t want to just test, we want to teach and then assess whether or not that teaching is making a difference.”

Another goal, says Leonardi, is to make sure that common practices and protocols are set up across the grade levels, “…so that teachers know what to do, parents know what to expect and we’ll be able to share any data regularly with families and make decisions about what are the next steps for any student who’s not making the kind of progress we need to see.”

The emphasis will be on data, or an SRBI (statistical research-based intervention) approach in both general and special education, something the DMC report stressed.

This year they plan to “pull baseline data” and then a year from the spring they will share whether or not they’re seeing the hoped-for results. But Leonardi cautioned that the board “won’t see magic in one year.”

“This is going to be a process. You’re going to want to start to see some trend data as the years progress with improving responses from our students with disabilities on the more classic assessments that you’re used to seeing–the SBACs and the MAP tests.” 

A second major area addressed in the DMC report were recommendations regarding utilization of teacher and staff time, especially with regard to time spent directly with students versus time spent on operations and processes–in PPT and IEP meetings. Leonardi said she is overseeing similar data gathering in this area as well.

“Hopefully we’ll come to you next year at this time with some real targets, to make sure that the staff is spending the vast majority of their time in direct service to students, while still managing the processes of special education effectively and efficiently,” she says.

The $2 Million Question

Following the administrators’ presentation, Hemmerle posed his question of how to answer critics who want to know where the $2 million savings are.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to do that. Where are we in the process, are we ever going to get there. Personally I think it’s pie in the sky, this is a very complex business that we’re trying to do with these kids. From my perspective, I probably shouldn’t say this, I don’t care about the $2 million, I care about taking care of the kids. If we can save something along the way and become more efficient, fine. But this has become such a hot button issue. But we have to understand where are we in the process, are we ever going to get there, and still do the things we need to do,” he said.

While his fellow board member Laura Schwemm noted that the initial purpose of engaging DMC was not about saving money but rather about how to better serve students.

Hemmerle agreed, but noted that what many residents took away from the report was the idea that, “‘If you do all these things, you can save $2 million.’ We have to figure out how to address that and respond to that. We need to address the steps. We can’t keep kicking the can down the road–we’ve got to come up with it. Ever budget session the question is going to come–where’s the $2 million?”

Leonardi countered that it will come but might take longer than people expect:  “We started in July, and there’s a lot more to look into. It’s a more complex issue than simply saying, ‘cut x-number of staff.’”

BOE chair Chris Finkelstein replied, “That’s what the report said to do. And that’s why people in the community expect it. We have to do a better job of explaining it.”

Hemmerle reinforced that the district needs to do a better job of explaining the community about what decisions have been made, whether the goal is “doable” or not, and why were the decisions made.

“We made them because it’s the right thing to do for the students. Which is number one. But we’re going to have to figure out how to respond, because we have budget presentations coming up and we have to be able to respond to it,” Hemmerle added.

Schwemm responded that changes are being made, and that steps are being taken, but noted, “If someone thinks you can just cut $2 million like that…” snapping her fingers.”

“But they do,” Hemmerle said, noting it was the perception held by some community members, and the Board’s task was to make the reality of the situation better understood. “How do we better communicate how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it, what the benefits are–both financially and for the students–and the students first.”

Chuck Smith, assistant superintendent for curriculum, suggested that while there may be increases in expenditures for special education, those increases may not be as steep as they previously were before any of the recommendations were implemented.

“What I would suggest is to see whether it has any impact on the rate of increases rather than whether we’re going to see a huge savings. We need to flip the conversation and say that we’re getting costs under control and we’re not seeing the level of increases in special education that we saw in previous years.”

Superintendent Kevin Smith echoed his colleagues remarks and pointed out where changes have already been made and where the execution of DMC recommendations may differ from what happens day to day in the schools.

“For a couple of years [former assistant superintendent for special services] Ann Paul had come before the board and described how through a variety of efforts we are reducing the number of PPTs, and fairly substantially over the last three years. But it has not yet yielded an opportunity to reconsider staffing,” Smith said.

He added that one of his concerns is how the district has had to address a dramatic rise in the number of students who have needs in ways they hadn’t seen previously. Given that critics of the school budget have pointed to the number of school psychologists as a place where cuts should be made, Smith addressed this directly.

“I’ve been meeting with superintendents in lower Fairfield County, and our topic at each of those meetings is the perception of our epidemic levels of anxiety and stress among our students. We are facing a different set of challenges today around the way we socially and emotionally support our students, particularly at the high school level, and I would be very cautious about coming forward and eliminating willy-nilly school psychologist positions. Many of those folks are on the front lines in support of these students. Some of these needs do not manifest themselves until some of these kids really begin to think about college. So we are very richly, generously staffed in our school psychologists, and I think appropriately so.”

Leonardi added another area she felt the DMC report neglected to consider–that some service providers are working with students who aren’t necessarily part of special education services but who may need attention in one particular skill area.

“Our related services staff are not solely assigned to children with disabilities. I want to make sure students are with certified staff as much is as humanly possible, and we have to meet our legal obligations to the parents of children with disabilities under federal and state statute. But understanding that our related services people–school psychologists, social workers, speech and language pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists–I need the community and all of us to understand that they are working in service to other children as well. I’m not sure that the DMC study really looked at the amount of work that those people are doing in service to the larger population of students. Some of that assumption that if we just have fewer PPTs we can decrease those people–the study looks at how much time a psychologist might use to do an evaluation. Our psychologists do far more than evaluate–far more. They do a lot of direct service to students. Our job is to communicate that to people–and that’s my job,” Leonardi explained, adding, “I’m working on it. I’m on it.”

Both Hemmerle and Finkelstein agreed that what Smith and Leonardi were saying was a critical one, especially when it came to the levels of anxiety students face.

“That’s an important point that isn’t being captured, it’s important information,” Finkelstein said. “And they’re our regular students,” Hemmerle added.