The Board of Education invited the Nathan Levinson, president of the District Management Council (DMC), to its meeting last night, to discuss the study DMC conducted of Wilton’s special education program. The much buzzed-about analysis was conducted in 2015 by the Wilton district. The report submitted by DMC to Wilton’s BOE at the conclusion of the study has been cited often by critics of the school district who believe that education spending in Wilton is excessive and is increasing faster and more than it should.

Levinson told the Board that he feels those critics may have misinterpreted some of the report findings–specifically “the complexities, not the direction or the opportunities, but the complexities.”

Those critics point to the conclusions in the DMC report to assert that school officials are not doing enough to build in more efficiency in the way operations, especially special education and reading interventions, are conducted in the district. They say that Wilton Public Schools could be realizing several millions of dollars in savings if administrators followed the report findings–but that the district isn’t complying.

In addition, members of the Board of Finance have been critical of the Board of Education with regard to the DMC study–particularly now during budget setting time. They say that the BOF has requested explicit answers from the BOE about how findings from the DMC report have been implemented–but that the BOE isn’t as forthcoming as it should be.

During the BOF mil rate setting meeting on Tuesday, April 3, Board member Walter Kress expressed his frustration at not getting the DMC report information he’s seeking from the Education Board, despite asking multiple times.

“The DMC report–I’ve said four times publicly. What are the things you’ve accomplished, what are the things you’re working on and what’s the timeline; and the things you can’t accomplish and why. I just can’t ask again.”

What Levinson told the BOE was, “You’re doing the right stuff at the right pace.”

DMC President:  Changes We’ve Suggested will Take a Very Long Time

At last night’s BOE meeting, DMC’s Levinson was asked to talk about the study, to “hopefully manage some expectations,” according to Superintendent Kevin Smith. Members of the Board of Finance were seated in the audience during Levinson’s presentation. What they heard him say was that not only is Wilton embracing the concept that change is needed in how it operates special education, but that Wilton is already trying to adopt those changes DMC recommended. Levinson also stressed that the process of accomplishing that change takes a very, very long time–much longer than some critics of the school district expect.

Levinson explained that the core of the report was to look at, “How do you raise achievement, and increase services, and do more and better for your kids? And how do you do it in a way that is fair and reasonable for your staff, and to do it cost effectively?” He started with an overall positive assessment in how the Wilton District has responded since receiving the report.

“We’ve done this kind of work with more than 100 school districts in more than 25 states.  We’ve seen a lot over the last 10 years. From our vantage point we would, without a doubt, put the Wilton Public Schools in the upper third of districts that have embraced the report, working the report, implementing the report. And by all internal measures we would say it is alive and well and doing what it was intended to do,” Levinson said–although he acknowledged a “paradox” he’s read about in news coverage–that not everyone agrees with his assessment.

What gets lost for some people, however, is the time table and complexity, says Levinson, as well as something he called the “span of control”–or who gets to decide.

“It took a very, very long time for you to get to where you are, and it may take a very, very long time for you to get to where you want to be,” Levinson told the BOE.

The other thing he stressed was that in reality, school administrators, special education professionals and school boards don’t really get to decide what services children will receive. “Federal law took that away in 1976. Under Federal and State rules, teachers, special educators and parents will sit down for the IEP and PPT, and say what’s appropriate and what’s needed. That same student, in different towns the people sitting down will come up with a different plan. But that plan is based on the student’s needs, but a lot on how we have served kids with those needs over the last 20 or 30 years.”

Levinson stressed that districts are sometimes very slow to adapt to changes suggested by consultants like DMC.

“What we have seen as districts try to shift to intervene earlier, you intervene outside of special ed, you can’t force it on the system. The handful of places that have tried, the grievances, lawsuits, advocates come out in force, they always win because the law is on their side, and any perceived sense of trying to save some resources you lose 10 times over.”

Change is a process that is “very slow–it cannot be forced. It is not up to you as the Board or the administrators either. It is a community, parent … you need everybody to agree.” Levinson said change works better when phased in–starting with the youngest kids who don’t yet have IEPs and with children entering pre-school.

“That becomes the new norm,” he said, adding, “This is a thoughtful approach. It is a slow approach.”

Levinson said he understood how some observers could get frustrated at what they perceive as the BOE being too slow to adopt change in the schools.

“I can understand the frustration, like, ‘Why can’t you just do this faster?’ The truth is, you can’t. The law doesn’t allow it, the community doesn’t allow it, and trying to do it faster always backfires. You get more pushback, more expense, and you derail the effort.”

Budget Impact

Levinson also spoke to the way the district has approached budgets. He referred to the overall budget increase over the last four years–and how it might be too lean to keep up with what students need.

“As a former school board member, 1.43% for the last four years, that is not much money. Those are very tight budgets. The work around special education in particular, people have to put in context. We see many, many school systems, where the special education cost is rising 5%, 7%, 8% a year after year. WE’re seeing that because the needs of kids are changing. The world didn’t stop. The financial situation hit a lot of places, but the kids going to school paid no attention to what the Wall Street Journal was printing.”

What’s especially impactful is the how many more students are facing challenges that the schools have to keep up with–and that the school is doing more with less.

“The number of kids with more severe disabilities, especially the number of kids with social and emotional and behavioral challenges, anxiety, the pressure both from kindergarten through graduating seniors, there is not a district we have worked with that hasn’t had the pressure to add social workers, psychologists–some kind of support around that.”

Another factor at work in Wilton, according to Levinson, is that the number of special education FTEs has stayed the same, but their time working with students has increased significantly. He used an example of eight FTEs who used to spend half a day working with students, and two years later now spend three-quarters of their day doing the same thing.

“By any reasonable measure, you’ve added the equivalent of two full-time people supporting kids. That’s a huge gain. That’s two people you didn’t have to hire, a whole lot more kids you’ve been able to help. The problem is that the metric most boards and districts have is they had eight before, I have eight now, nothing changed. Well, actually there’s a couple hundred thousand, $175,000-$180,000 of change. You’re doing so much more with the folks you have and the dollars you have. It’s our sense that a fair amount of that has taken place [in Wilton]. It’s an important metric as you try to evaluate the changes that have taken place.”

Levinson addressed a question submitted by the Board of Finance which asked about the growth in the special education in the district and the $2 million of savings that could be realized from following the report’s recommendations. “We never said that you could get all of the savings. First of all you can’t do all of them; you can do one or two. We said you could shift the resources. The fact that you have slowed and have relatively flat special ed spending puts you in the upper reaches of where districts want to be.”

Levinson extended an apology to the community, about how the report was written. He even noted that in part because of how members of the Wilton community misinterpreted the report, DMC has changed the way its consultants write reports.

“We stand by every word in it, but we haven’t felt great about how folks, particularly outside the system, have interpreted some of what we’ve written. Folks inside the system fully understand because they live and breathe special education, have a deep understanding of legislation. Particularly this issue of span of control, who gets to decide. In some places, folks outside the system read these reports and say, ‘Oh, this looks easy. Why don’t they just …’ and then you fill in the blank. Public education, specifically special education, is so much more complicated than it looks from the outside. We have really revamped how we present our findings so that it is more explicit–about the pace of change, and the complexity and the need for very broad based support for any changes. I wish we had done that here.”

As an example of what has been changed, Levinson said, “We have learned that some people tend to grab a number and not all the sentences in and around it. We have found that people zero in on the number and not everything that comes with it and the complexities of it. Also that in 3-5 years, most districts will move forward on just one or two of the recommendations, so the idea that you can add up all of them…that’s a quick thing to do so we don’t make that easy anymore.”

He added that while the recommendations made to Wilton in the DMC report are “correct and valid,” he would have written it differently:  “to be very clear, that you cannot do all of them. If somebody said we want to do all six of them, the first things we would have said is, ‘You’re crazy.'” Levinson also noted, “The way you’re going about it is the way we would recommend.”

Board member Glen Hemmerle voiced his frustration about how the district has been criticized for not saving dollars in the area of special education.

“I watch the parents of these children, I watch [asst. superintendent for special education] Andrea [Leonardi], I watch the people in the area of special education committed to doing the right thing by these kids, and it doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come cheap. To think that we’re going to wave a magic wand and in two years we’re going to save $2 million just isn’t going to happen. Our cost in this area has been fairly static year over year over year for the past four or five years. We’re doing a good job managing a very high level service to these kids.”

Levinson replied that the DMC report recognizes this.

“I do think this is consistent with what we wrote–that you did not need more money to change and expand how you work with kids. And I think that’s what you’re doing.”

He also commended the district, saying that given the number of 504 and IEPs in the district, Wilton is staffed appropriately. “You require the staff you have. We see a leadership team thoughtfully and methodically trying to shift that. You’ll get there, but not as quickly as people like. But nobody else is getting there any faster.”

Levinson reiterated that enrollment declines do not automatically show in cost savings.

“It is a step function. It never works, 2.2% down in enrollment [so] 2.2% down in staffing costs. But over time you should see those costs that should track. But track headcount. People’s costs go up. If you lost 1% of your kids, and you lost 1% in headcount, your budget is going up by 3%. Generally speaking, if you look at every collective bargaining agreement in the country, teachers get paid more the longer they’re in the system and as they get more degrees. Your healthcare costs don’t go down just because you have fewer students. The headcount went down but the cost of the headcount went up–that’s the way it works in this country. It costs the same to heat a school whether three kids come to school or 300. The same with custodial and a whole bunch of other costs. And things like special education which doesn’t track to enrollment.”

Changes in growth of services also impact rising costs more than enrollment and that there is no correlation between the two.

“The world doesn’t stop. And kids who are coming to school have greater needs. You may have 27 new kids come next year; I am fairly confident you will have more than 30 kids who have some social and emotional challenges and you’re going to want to meet those needs. You may decide you want to expand STEM offerings because lots of people are doing that.”