Six months into his new position as superintendent of Wilton Public Schools, Dr. Kevin Smith sat down with GOOD Morning Wilton  for a check-in interview. Dr. Smith has made it clear that he is always accessible and available for comment and conversation with the press. What prompted this sit-down was Monday night’s ‘Community Conversation,’ a Q&A session that Smith and the Board of Education members wanted to have with community members early in the budget process for the 2015-16 school year. They hoped to get feedback from all members of the Wilton community–both those with children in the schools and those without.

We asked to talk about those sessions and about the budget, as well as about a variety of other things. The conversation took place yesterday, Dec. 3.

GMW:  Monday night’s community conversation about next year’s budget, a GOOD concept…but only about 10-12 people showed up?

Dr. Kevin Smith: About 15 I would say.

GMW: I would have loved to have been there, if not for the Board of Selectmen’s meeting. How was it structured? How did it work?

KS:  The purpose of the meeting was to give community members an opportunity to speak directly to the Board of Education members in a facilitated conversation about the budget. That was the goal. The idea behind that was lets get the direct feedback, look for the themes, look for what community members are suggesting and then try to be responsive through our budget presentation.

I had each board member at a table, with 10-12 chairs; I had a central office administrator assigned to each board member and his or her job was just to scribe the conversation. We had about seven general questions the board members were to try to work through; they were really just guiding questions, because conversations like that take on a life of their own. But there were hints of broad themes:  too high, too low; are there elements of the budget that you really support; are there elements within the existing budget that you think need to change; are there programs we should have or take away; and everything else in between.

Because there were fewer people than I had expected–which was fine–we collapsed tables, we had three rather than five or six. I was at a table with [Bd. of Ed. chair] Bruce Likly and Ann Paul was the scribe; there were probably seven community members at the table and it was a terrific conversation. People have very clear points of view.

We talked about the athletics budget–hockey came up. One parent talked about a desire for enrichment. There were competing perspectives about pay-to-play, competing perspectives about class size. Then there were some good proposals; some rich conversations around technology and how to use it to expand opportunities, how to use technology to try to offset the budget by reducing headcount within the district. It was a really good interchange.

There were some good questions that were asked, in terms of are we right-sized in terms of administrative staff? There’s a perception that there’s a lot of administrative staff relative to some other communities. One of my follow-up items is to get the comparables and take a look. We’re doing our own internal look, we have been for some time, but I appreciated the question.

I found it to be a really good, constructive conversation. My sense is that each of the folks at the other tables did too.

GMW:  Are you going to hold more of these conversations? You have said in the past you want increased communication both ways between the district and the community. And is there still time in the budget process for more community input?

KS:  Number one, if you were unable to participate on Monday night, and you have some input, go to our website, on the right-hand side you’ll find a link to a google form. Those questions are there, you can respond or write whatever you want–it’s an open text box. We’re going to compile that all through the process.

We’ll plan a second conversation like this after the initial budget proposal has been presented to the Board of Ed. somewhere in the midst of their deliberations, in the mid-January time frame. So people can take a look at what’s been proposed; in the middle of the board’s deliberations, we’ll facilitate another conversation, and then they can give direct feedback to the board, and the board can incorporate that right into their deliberation process, prior to having to make a decision.

GMW:  I’m sure you haven’t yet been able to go through all of the information that came out of Monday’s session, but I want to ask if there was anything surprising? Something a community member suggested that made you say, “We never thought of that before!” Anything that stuck out?

KS:  District assistant Molly [Rollison] is compiling the transcripts right now, and then I’ll read all the raw data and do coding and organizing. I haven’t yet seen anything that was a real outlier.

What I found affirming was the level of interest that the people at the tables had. There was some obvious investment in the budget. There were a couple of folks there who were committed to enrichment programs, and so I think that’s a voice that needs to be paid attention to.

I also think–we’ve talked about this before–one of the women at my table was expressing how she and her husband have lived in their same house for 50 years, and she’s really concerned that the cost of property taxes are going to drive them out of their home. That’s a real worry for me. I think public school is expensive. So we need to find a way, I have an obligation to make sure that we are running this operation in the most cost-effective way and providing the best return on investment possible. I need to be able to feel good and defend every expenditure in that budget.

It was a good reminder–not that I needed it–but it was a good reminder to have that voice at the table.

GMW:  So there were members of the community who didn’t have children in the schools who were there?

KS:  Oh, sure, yes.

GMW:  The number I saw referenced in the invitations to the meeting was “$75 million-plus budget.”  Correct me if I’m wrong about figures last year but it was at $78 million something last year.

KS:  That’s correct.

GMW:  Without holding you tight and fast to the numbers, are you thinking more along the lines of $75 million for the 2015-16 budget proposal?

KS:  We haven’t finished compiling what the budget is going to be. The buildings are developing their budget proposals right now, but we haven’t done a first look. We have the contracted salary increases, that was a big one; so we know what that number is. We have the enrollment projections, so we can plan on staffing adjustments as necessary. We have the first run at healthcare. But I don’t have that all on a single page.

I can’t answer that question at this point yet.

GMW:  I know that every year there are the big building blocks that are set–energy costs, salaries, and health insurance…that really the flexible items are small and tight, which is hard…

KS:  I think Wilton is not unlike other communities that have been squeezed in the last couple of years. Even in a budget of that magnitude, the majority of our funds are tied up in human beings. Salary and benefits are probably close to 80-percent of the overall operating budget. Then you have the other fixed costs–transportation, energy, what have you. So when you get down to what is your discretionary spending, it comes in the ‘stuff’–technology, chalk, pens, paper, whatever. My suspicion is that those cost centers have been flat-funded for quite a while, and have had minimal or modest increases. So the decision points are, for us, really around personnel, if we were going to make some major changes.

GMW:  It’s always that way.

KS:  It is. And that’s okay. We have to look. The question that I’m asking, that we’re talking around, is, ‘Are we providing the best education in the right way.’ So we want to look at all the course offerings, and look at special education.

Inside of that conversation is a major focal point. I think the way that the special education has been talked about, clearly the cost increases is outpacing the other increases. But we have many kids with very complex needs, and we have an obligation to serve them as well as we serve everybody else. So we need to fund that. The question is, ‘Are we providing the best services in the right way?’ That’s something we’ve been talking a lot about here.

[Tonight] at our board meeting, [assistant superintendent for special services] Ann Paul is going to be presenting one proposal that we’ve received from an organization that has offered to help us review that, and walk us through a process to understand how our services align to best practices. We’re collecting some other proposals, and I expect, beginning this year, that we will come forward to the board looking for approval to go forward with one of these companies to help us really better understand our process for delivering special education services, and look for ways to help close the achievement gap.

GMW:  This is your first Wilton budget. We’ve gotten very used to the ‘budget super graphic.’ What is Wilton going to see that is a different approach?

KS:  We really need to be very clear with what the budget funds with respect to priority. The budget ought to tell the financial story of what matters to us. I’m not sure that’s clear and explicit in the way the budget has been presented in the past. I’ll be looking to tell that story.

In my mind, a budget pays for performance and opportunity. What does that mean at each of the schools? What are the opportunities that our kids have that may be different and distinct from other communities that we could describe as some return on investment. And what does the performance look like? The academic performance. Some of the extracurricular performance through the clubs and activities. Maybe the athletic performance. But how well are those dollars being spent towards helping kids maximize their potential?

Through the budget presentation I’m going to try to tell that story. And then be very clear about what, within the next year, what the priorities are. What do we need to do? Some of the things I think we need to do are make sure we are clearly aligned and articulated across the buildings, in terms of the way that we’re providing curriculum, and the way that we’re providing intervention services. I think, too, we really need to look at our enrichment programs and see how we’re currently providing it. [Cider Mill Principal] Jen Mitchell is doing a very good job of it at Cider Mill, in that WIN block of trying to create new opportunities. We want to make sure we articulate in the budget that those priorities are there and they’re expressed in each building.

Beyond that, this is meant to be a community dialogue:  you as a resident and taxpayer, this is your budget. You have a child in the school, so I want you and everybody else to feel really good about the product and the service that we’re providing. That’s what’s been so enriching about the conversation on Monday night and some of these other parent conversations I’ve had over the last 6-8 weeks. The feedback has really been helpful in terms of focusing in on areas of need, areas of growth, as well as areas of celebration. But really, as parents you know exactly what is going on in our schools.

GMW:  Does that mean we’ll see curriculum changes? Are there going to be very obviously different things the community will see?

KS:  The changes might not be apparent to everyone initially. One of the observations I’ve made since coming here is that the schools run fairly autonomously. Wilton has been traditionally pretty decentralized. If you go not far back in time, there wasn’t always an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. That work fell to the principals. If the principals weren’t meeting regularly and sharing practices, then you had different practices taking place.

As I’ve been talking to parents, teachers and administrators, I think we’re seeing that. There are some real different practices at Miller-Driscoll compared to Cider Mill. One of the changes I’m looking to make is try to make the system more tightly coupled.

To be more concrete, [asst. superintendent] Chuck [Smith] is initiating curriculum review cycles. We’re starting this year with the English Language Arts. That’s a K-12 look at how we deliver instruction and literacy across the continuum. Through that review cycle, I fully expect there to be changes–what those changes are at this point, I’m not sure.

As we begin to become expert in the Common Core Standards, and begin to understand what our writing looks like, and what our reading program looks like against those standards call for, I’m sure they’ll be making adjustments. In terms of alignment across buildings, I’m sure adjustments will need to be made.

GMW:  You’re hitting budget season, so you’ll be doing more numbers crunching. Have you been able to get out there and mix it up into the classroom? Have you gone to eaten in the cafeterias?

KS:  I have not gone to eat in the cafeterias, so I need to.

In the last month I have not been in classrooms as much as I want to be. There are other issues on my desk right now that are getting in the way of that. But it’s my number one priority.

A couple cool things I have done in the last month, though, is to shadow students–I shadowed a kiddo over at Middlebrook for half-a-day and I’m going to finish the day with her in the next couple weeks, and I shadowed a young man here at the high school. I literally did what they did–sat in the classroom. At the high school, I was in a Spanish class, an American government class, a forensics class (which was really cool). I was in Chip Gawle’s band class. At Middelbrook, I was in Reading Writing Workshop, and a science class–a microscope lab. It was really great, just to rub elbows with some of our students, and have a day in the life experience. I thing all of our administrators, we should find ways for every single teacher in the district to do that too, because it will reorient them. It reoriented me.

GMW:  In what way?

KS:  Participating in the high school curriculum from the high schoolers perspective. You literally walked in their shoes for a day. So you got the full experience of how different classes line up, and how kids need to prepare for those classes, what the transition time is like, and what the experience of that class is.

It would be helpful for teachers and administrators to do that because often teachers focus on their own classes, and just given the way we plan and structure our lives, I don’t know that all of us are thinking about what does this look like across the continuum of five or six classes in a day. I’d say the same for administrators; given our work, we are thinking that way. It’s helpful to go back and refresh. It reminded me of why we’re doing what we’re doing–we’re hear to serve kids and families.

Experiencing our work from a kid’s perspective was helpful to see some of the strengths and some of the growth areas.

GMW:  How do you think the high school is rebounding from the events earlier this year, [involving the swastikas]?

KS: That’s a challenging question to answer with a blanket statement. I’m not sure that every student’s response was necessarily the same as every adult’s response.

I was really pleased with the way that the staff and the administrators responded. They really saw the issues for what they were–they were acts of intolerance and hate. Responding appropriately, they were important models for the kids.

I think some of the students were more inclined to not read the situation in the same light. Creating opportunities to dialogue about tolerance was very important. Are they rebounding? I guess they are; like anything like that, we try to make them teachable moments. There have been no new issues like that, so that’s a good thing.

My hope is that every person took an opportunity to reflect on what that means and assess their own behavior, and make renewed efforts to be more tolerant. I can’t say that that actually happened but that’s certainly a hope of mine. I know the conversations I participated in were very illuminating and helpful, and what I find in general the students are incredibly kind and polite. The atmosphere tends to be very warm, at least in the bits I’ve experienced. Kids are already building on what was a positive atmosphere.

GMW: You’re pretty close to six months.

KS:  It’s a whirlwind! I’ll tell you why I love this community:  I’ve had an incredible time getting to know people so far, and I’m looking to spend much more time with kids and teachers in the buildings. I’ve had great opportunities to meet with the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club, to meet people from all across the community. I’m continually impressed by our Board of Education; we have an exceptionally dynamite staff; there’s a lot of really good, strong folks here in the community that really do have the best interests of children.

I remain really enthusiastic about being here and about the great work that’s going on–and about the great work that’s yet to be done.

GMW: Anything else you would like to ad?

KS:  Just that people should feel invited to participate. I think that’s something I’ve picked up along the way–not everybody has always felt invited. That was part of Monday night, to be explicit about that invitation [to the wider community]. And I think this board has a desire–it’s a stated board goal–they want a budget that reflects value in the eyes of the community. If they don’t know what the community wants, it’s going to be hard to do that.

People should feel very comfortable about expressing some ideas and some interest, and providing feedback, once the proposal is complete and published.

The other big piece that the board and I have been working on is refashioning a vision for the district. The board adopted a vision statement back in November, and I’m excited about that because it’s an anchor point for us. It’s an aspirational statement that helps articulate what it is we want to see from our kids from our school system. Working off our vision, back mapping our goals into what we need to see happening in classrooms. We’re doing some exciting work around strategic planning that’s anchored in those vision and goals. Through a really articulated strategic planning process we’re going to see momentum build towards the kinds of changes we need–infusing more deeply in technology; studying and understanding the way that we communicate to do so more effectively; looking at new and different opportunities for kids to connect with adults and their school–it’s a major priority.

GMW: What does that mean day-to-day for the kids in the classroom?

KS:  What we want is to guarantee that every child has at least one adult that she feels really bonded too. We’re pretty hard-wired that we want to connect to others–it’s part of our reason for being. Where some kids run into trouble is when they don’t feel connected to adults and to the schools.

What that would mean is making sure we have the right adults who are warm and capable of connecting; but then building programs and environments that also induce connections…creating new opportunities to experience new ideas and thinking, and be exposed to different adults within the school, so they can really feel the extent of the full breadth and strength of the fabric within the school. I’d love to have that carry through all the system.

I think it becomes especially critical at the high school, as kids are faced with more rigorous academic demands and more significant life choices; they need to have those safe adults to fall back on and to confide in and to help support their social and emotional development.

If we can continue to strengthen the system around supporting kids, I would hope that we would see, at least in the long term, fewer kids dependent on drugs and alcohol; fewer kids who are facing such dramatic social and emotional difficulties, or at least having a better response system to encounter those kids and support them when they do when they do run into that trouble.

GMW:  I know there are people who will say, ‘What about the 3R’s–reading, writing and arithmetic? I’m not hearing you talk about that? Why take care of the touchy-feely stuff?’

KS:  I would say psychological safety is a precondition to learning. If you are feeling unsafe, you’re physiologically unavailable for learning. Kids need to feel safe. That’s why it’s the first goal. It’s a precondition to learning. It’s not a zero-sum, where we do one in the absence of the other, providing a guaranteed viable and vigorous curriculum is absolutely essential. Kids need to read, write, compute, speak and function at very high levels. Those things go hand in hand. But if kids aren’t feeling safe, the other stuff is not going to happen.