Tomorrow, May 1, Wilton holds its Annual Town Meeting to discuss and vote on the town’s FY’19 budget. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, town officials–who predominantly are resident volunteers–spend an inordinate amount of time on the budget process. It can sometimes be challenging as each Board–Finance, Education and Selectmen–want to make sure Wilton residents get the best services possible at the most fiscally responsible cost. But sometimes those boards may not necessarily agree on what services are necessary and best, or on what is fair to ask residents to pay in taxes to fund that budget.

During this year’s budget discussions, there were community members who objected to some comments made during the Board of Finance’s discussions on the school budget–primarily in the area of special education spending. 

GMW reached out to Andrea Leonardi, the assistant superintendent for special services at Wilton Public Schools, to discuss some of the comments and assertions made about processes and operations in providing special education services, how her department works, and what she wants people to know about costs and factors involved in the part of the school budget that covers special services.

GOOD Morning Wilton:   Let’s start with the District Management Council report, a document written by the consultants that studied how Wilton schools provide special education services. In the past, some Board of Finance members have asserted that the schools are not implementing recommended changes quickly enough–changes that could save the district as much as $2 million. Some BOF members also have said the BOE hasn’t been forthcoming with how or when those changes will be implemented.

A few weeks ago, the DMC report author, Dr. Nathan Levenson, spoke to the BOE and praised Wilton, saying that the district has implemented changes at an appropriate, ideal pace, and that changes–and the resulting savings–will take much more time. He also said it’s unlikely that all of the $2 million in recommendations could be achieved.

Have you had any discussion with the BOF since Dr. Levenson came, about reconciling the difference of opinion on how the DMC report has been handled by the district?

Andrea Leonardi:  Well, the easy answer is, not yet. There hasn’t been an opportunity yet. I know that members of the Board of Finance that evening spent a fair amount of time talking to Dr. Levenson outside in the hallway after the meeting, so I have not been able to round back with them yet.

GMW:  Here’s one of the quotes some parents were upset by, from a BOF discussion about the school budget. “Parents are appearing at PPTs not prepared. Teachers, in some circumstances, are appearing at PPTs, not prepared. We have to change that. This is not 2-3 years, this is something that needs to be implemented quickly.”

Does that lack of preparation really happen frequently, if at all?

Leonardi:  I have a tendency not to judge people that way. There are some meetings that perhaps a question is asked at the meeting that is not easily answered with the information that’s at the table and people need to round back, circle back. Parents do the best they can. I know that. I think teachers do the best they can. Sometimes things happen and the meeting doesn’t go as smoothly. There’s work we can all do to make time we spend in meetings more effective, more efficient, and certainly having everyone come to the table fully prepared to engage in the work that needs to be done. But I think most people would agree, most people who attend meetings in general, would agree that you have to build a relationship in order to create those things.

So, while I understand what [they were] saying–and I don’t disagree, we need to always strive for maximum efficiency–I don’t judge parents harshly ever and I also think teachers and school-based staff do the best they can on any given day. And sometimes things don’t go as well as planned. But I would have to say when I read [the] quotations of the article, [from] my interactions with the BOF, I believe they have the best interest of Wilton at heart, including the children with disabilities at Wilton. I do think they have a role to play and their role is to make sure that we are utilizing the tax payers’ funds as best we can to meet the needs of all kids, including kids with disabilities.

So, when I read what [BOF member] Mr. [Walter] Kress said, I understand that coming from a certain perspective it might sound harsh or hurtful but I don’t think that’s what it was. I think Mr. Kress cares deeply about the children with disabilities at Wilton and I’m confident that when given all of the right financial information and a solid understanding of the laws that govern special education, that the Board of Finance members will make the right decision.

GMW:  At budget time, and even beyond, discussion is about efficiencies in the schools and comparing them to the way businesses are run, the way a corporation is run. When you’re describing what a PPT is like, when you’re talking about the different kinds of needs in the arena of special education, is that a fair comparison or assessment?

Leonardi:  It’s not a fair comparison. Special education is governed by both state statute and federal statute. And there are regulations, rights, and requirements that we’re all held accountable to–in terms of working collaboratively with families, in terms of protecting the civil rights of children with disabilities, and in terms of addressing the federal funds that go along with that. So, it’s really not a fair comparison to say. In business you can summarily dismiss X number of people. In special education you have to meet the needs of the IEP that’s written at the table closest to the child. So, myself, as the assistant superintendent, I don’t have more power than the team. The team has the power.

That team includes parents, and teachers, and administrators at the building level working together. They determine what the child’s needs are, and then we as a district are obligated to provide the resources necessary to meet those needs. And if we can’t meet the needs within the district then we’re obligated to pay for those needs to be met outside the district, which is always more expensive.

What’s difficult for people who don’t know special education to understand is that it’s not as easily controlled as people would like it to be. There are ways to do work efficiently and to utilize those dollars efficiently:  building internal capacity; creating internal programs when you have the students who need those services; effective grouping practices to make sure that students with like needs can be grouped together for instruction and/or related services–speech and language therapy, OT/PT, etc.. Those are all aspects of the work that I think DMC talked about and that we’re already working on.

But making those decisions and working with families at the PPT level, at the individual student level, takes time because what you don’t want to do is move so fast that the families, and parents, and students feel that the program becomes inappropriate, and therefore, we end up with more legal action.

But we have to show people, bring people aboard, show them how it works, build consensus at the individual student level in order to begin to see the fruits of that labor. You can’t just make the decisions and just say they’re complete from central office, and hope that slides. That doesn’t work.

That’s the frustration people feel–they wish it could just be the superintendent or the director of special ed who makes the decision but we don’t make that decision. The individual student need decision is made closest to the child.

GMW:  On the flip side, do you see inefficiencies that the Board of Finance has said there are? Are there places where there’s room for improvement?

Leonardi:  There’s always room for improvement. Education is all about continuous improvement, so there’s always room for improvement. There’s room for new methodologies, there’s room for new types and ways that those services can be delivered, and we should always be seeking ways to make it better, more efficient, more effective for students, so there’s always room for improvement, including on the fiscal end.

That being said, I don’t want people to leave thinking that there’s gross inefficiency that needs to be fixed. The Wilton Public Schools are not broken but there is plenty of room for us to look at things, to look at them from all angles, to collaborate with people who come from different perspectives to see if we could do our work differently.

I’m not fearful of having those conversations and really always seeking to do things effectively and to use our taxpayer funds in the best way possible to meet the needs of the kids. But the kids’ needs come first. I have to meet their needs, and then do it in the most fiscally responsible way possible.

GMW:  This isn’t meant to be a criticism, it’s just factual:  very few of the members of the BOF have children in the schools. Whether or not they may have intimate knowledge of the special education process, I hear the Board of Education consistently talk about the complexity of special education, how different it is now, how much more varied, and complex, and different the presentation of what kids are struggling with and what they need, that it’s not just a simple classification. Does the BOF not have the experience with it to understand just how complex the topic of special education is?

I’ve heard discussion between BOF members, one in particular telling his fellow Board members, “You need to come into the schools more. You need to see what it is that day-to-day teachers are doing, that educators, that people who are student facing, what they’re dealing with, what the administrators are dealing with.”

Leonardi:  Certainly, I would welcome the BOF to come into the schools, but I’m not sure for them to do their job they need to have the same information as a professional educator would. However, I think there’s plenty of room for shared understanding about the complexities of the law that govern special education, the way the legal mandate is, the way the federal law and the layer of the state regulation interplay and how that works. I think there’s plenty of room for some to build a common understanding of how those structures, what the pitfalls are of doing things or trying to do things that are out of compliance with that law, what those pitfalls can be and the negative fiscal implications that can result.

So, I do think there’s plenty of room for us to build a shared understanding. I’ve invited individual members or members of the Board of Finance to meet with me so that I can answer those kind of questions for them and help them understand and develop that shared understanding, so that when we’re in public, when we’re looking at budget items they understand how those decisions get made and the structures in place based on the federal law that require that. I hope that they’ll take me up on that and we can meet and develop that shared understanding. I think it will assist the budget process and I think it will help the Board of Finance to understand the nature of this work, the federal law and how it impacts the work, and how we can work together to insure that the dollars we get are used wisely.

GMW:   Sometimes the basis for a criticism comes from an anecdote, along the lines of, “We all know people whose kids have had those teachers who just can’t be coached,” or, “There is someone whose kid doesn’t really have needs but they’re bragging about how they’re getting the services anyway.”

Is it frustrating for you to hear that unprovable anecdote? And given the nature of privacy of the families trying to secure services for their children, and the children’s privacy, when you hear an anecdote like that, what’s your reaction to it?

Leonardi:  First and foremost, I can’t control it, right? Is there a possibility that there might be a person who’s trying to, I think the quote was, “Game the system.” Do I think that’s possible? Yes. Do I think that it represents the bulk of children with disabilities and their families in the Wilton Public Schools? I do not.

The teams on the ground working with families, identifying children with disabilities, are doing so based in their understanding of the definitions provided in the regulations. And we’re often presented with information from doctors in the community and we have no reason to suspect that those professionals are not being truthful or professional–they are bound by their ethics, as well.

So, I have no reason to believe that people are trying to put one over. Is it possible that there may be someone out there who was saying that? It could be. There’s no way for me to know that, but I certainly think that the bulk of parents with children with disabilities just want to meet their children’s needs because they have the same dreams for their kids that we all have. That their kids will have a life of independence and choice, that they’ll be able to have opportunities to live within their communities and to be supported. And I think that that’s just what all parents want for their kids and if you have a child with a disability and they need something different or they need something uniquely designed for them, then you’re going to advocate for that and I would expect nothing less.

I would expect absolutely nothing less from any parent but to advocate for the needs of their child.

GMW:  The word over-identification was used by the BOF. Do you think that there’s an issue with over-identification of children who need services?

Leonardi:  Well, the context of that comment, again, pointed back to the DMC report, and it pointed back to the fact that in Wilton, the number of children identified under Section 504 is higher than the data would suggest. The question is, is it that Wilton has a higher number of people with disabilities under 504 that need accommodation? I think Dr. Levenson spoke quite eloquently about how cultures develop, and I think that there is a culture–not just in Wilton, but in Southern Fairfield County–that has developed, that if your child needs something then you need a legal document to support that.

So, I do think that there is a cultural piece that exists if your child needs extended time on a test, or more time to complete a project, or decreased homework that you need a legal document to support you and to make sure that that [accommodation] happens, whereas in other schools around the country you might have situations where those things just happen without needing a 504 plan–for example, if a child breaks their leg and needs to have the key to the elevator and home bound tutoring for a few weeks while the leg heals that just happens and doesn’t require a 504 plan for it to happen. So, I think the commentary was speaking to the DMC report again and I think it’s something we all need to look at, certainly in our continuous improvement to move toward personalized learning or continuous improvement to look at universal design for instruction, universal design for learning, UDL.

You’ll see some of those things may fall away over time but it’s going to be a culture shift and that takes a lot of time. That takes a lot of time–that culture wasn’t created overnight and it won’t be shifted overnight.

We have to remember that in most instances 504 accommodations have no cost attached to them. So, it doesn’t cost anything to give a student extra time on a test. There seemed to be some question about whether that over-identification under 504 somehow had cost attached. Most 504 plans have no cost attached to them.

GMW:    The rest of that quote from the BOF discussion is, “When I see people are on the periphery taking advantage of the system, that bothers me. I know that’s costing the taxpayers and taking resources away from those children who really need it.”

Leonardi:  When I hear that, the resources we’re talking about, they’re not finances in the sense of the word of it doesn’t cost anything to provide extended time; however, when you have a legal process then there are opportunities for legal action so that costs money. There are opportunities for required meetings, with required members of teams and that takes teachers and staff away from students in the classroom for periods of time. So, it’s not that there’s no cost but it’s not the same cost as you would expect.

GMW:   One of the things that was striking in watching and re-watching the BOF meeting in question, was it seems there’s a perception of, “Here’s a limited pot and if you keep giving more to this group over here that means you’re taking away from that group over there.”

The exact quote was, “The second and third deciles in our school are starting not to get attention because of diversion of resources. I’m not sure it’s a dollar issue, I think people are getting stretched to say, ‘I’ve got to pay attention to this because I have all these 504s out there, whether they’re needed or not, it’s not up to me to decide.’ But when my son says, ‘I see all the attention going to all these other kids,’ and he happens to be probably in the second decile…that’s bothersome and I’ve heard that from others, as well.”

Is the situation such that there’s a limited number of resources and if you take from here to give to this person or this group, then something gets taken away from that other group, those other children?

Leonardi:  I think it’s important as a community for us to understand what it takes to educate all of our children well. However, students with disabilities are protected under federal and state law. The Board of Education, in their commentary about the budget, said there are certain things that are in the budget that really can’t be cut. Because of state and federal law, trying to cut them capriciously or arbitrarily would result in significant potential legal action. Recently we saw that happen in a neighboring school district.

You have to be very careful about how you make change and how you start to look at the change that needs to be made because you need to do so with the full consensus of each individual parent or each individual student in order to do it well. It worries me as an advocate for children with disabilities, and as an educator, and as a taxpayer, frankly, to think that people might begin to try to pit one group of students against another group of students. As a community we have to decide whether or not we want to educate everybody. Some students have federal protection, so they’re going to be educated. They’re going to receive the services and supports they need. The question is, do we want to, as a community, do that at the expense of other children or not.

Children in the protected classes, the federal law protects them. The question is whether the community wants to meet that obligation at the expense of other kids, and I don’t believe Wilton has to do that.

GMW:  Is Wilton currently doing that, or coming close to that?

Leonardi:  I don’t believe Wilton is doing that. I think the resources are being spent to give to all different kinds of kids and to try to meet their needs. There’s always room for improvement, as I said, but I believe right now the Wilton Public Schools are meeting the needs of a broad array of students, not just the needs of children with disabilities. Even with declining enrollment, but with year after year of looking at the budget as a zero sum game, even though costs are rising, there may come a time when we have to really make that decision about whether or not we’re going to start to educate one group of students at the expense of another, I personally, I think that would be tragic.

I don’t think we’re there yet but I think it’s something we should all be watching very carefully and we should be making sure that we protect all that Wilton has created as a school district. There are some amazing things, whether it’s the athletic department, the music department, the art department, or the academic departments that are doing wonderful things for a very wide array of students, including children with disabilities. But there could come a time where those decisions get harder and harder.

GMW:  The Board of Finance gave guidance to the Board of Education early on in the budget process for a 1.0% increase. Superintendent Kevin Smith asked all of the building administrators and all of the department administrators to put those budgets together and come back to the table, and from there those were narrowed down to try to meet that guidance. A budget with a 1.98% increase was discussed. But at a certain point Dr. Smith said, “We’ve cut too much and there are some very crucial things that need to go back in.” They were put back into the budget that was presented to the BOF, with a 2.24% total increase. Three of the reinstated items fell under your purview:  An English Language Learners’ (ELL) teacher, a special education secretary and a social worker?

Leonardi:  Yes.

GMW:  This may have been an off the cuff remark by one of the BOF members but adding back those items was referred to as “just thrown back in,” almost as if it was a casual decision. How much thought went into adding those costs back in? 

Leonardi:  The social work position is one social worker, [1.0 FTE] social worker who splits his time, half time at Miller-Driscoll Elementary and half time at Cider Mill School. That is the only social worker that services the Pre-K through 5 population and their families in the district. In these days when students have the increasing impact of the social and emotional realm, and particularly in elementary where so much of that impacts the family system, you don’t just intervene with the individual child, you intervene with the entire family. Decreasing that position was a very difficult decision. I had to look at it across all four schools, Pre-K through 21 and make a very, very difficult decision.

When the board was able and willing to entertain putting that position back I thought that was a very, very, very smart decision.

In terms of the special education secretary, the Middlebrook Middle School special education secretary plays a key role in maintaining legal compliance with all of the timelines and paperwork that are required of special education teachers, so that teachers can spend their time in the classroom. One of the things the DMC study spoke a lot about was doing things to streamline the paperwork so that certified staff could spend more time with kids.

That one secretary for that entire building is responsible for doing a tremendous amount of legal compliance work, including paperwork, to allow teachers to spend more time in direct service to students. So, if we were to reduce that it would be separating farther away from what the DMC study asked us to do but when you get a target of coming in at 1.0% everybody has to take something. Everybody has to chip into that, and so we did. The reason why it was a Middlebrook secretary was because there’s a retirement there, so it was by attrition. The person who’s currently sitting in that position announced her retirement that was an opportunity–it’s as arbitrary as that.

Sometimes you get to a point where you have to cut something and everything hurts. How we would have managed the legal compliance aspects at Middlebrook without that secretary, I’m not sure. We would have had to likely use teacher time to do that, to do some not-so-teacher-oriented tasks. The more people you have doing legal compliance work, you risk making mistakes in legal compliance work and that can cost you money.

GMW:  And the ELL teacher position?

Leonardi:  When you’re trying to educate a youngster who comes to us not fluent in English you can’t imagine what it’s like for a person to be going to school in a highly academic environment, a very rigorous academic program and not have a little extra support when you’re trying to do the work of learning a second language. Our young children acquire English, including Academic English, very quickly, but if you’re a middle schooler or a high schooler and you don’t have a command of Academic English that’s a very, very tough position to be in at a very critical academic time. And we’re seeing increasing numbers of students coming to us who have that need.

That was not a frivolous request and it’s still not a frivolous request. That position did not get added back. We’re going to try to do the best we can with the resources we have for those kids. But that teacher is a need for those children. But we’re going to have to try to make do the best we can with the services and supports we have and they do yeoman’s work but that was not a frivolous request.

It’s being deferred until hopefully next year.

GMW:   I’m curious about a word that gets used a lot in the discussion. It may not necessarily be just about special education but one BOF member said, “We’re making great headway on a set of metrics that juxtaposes the resource dollars spent and the yield in however the school defines success, test scores, and things of that nature.” The word ‘metrics’ gets used quite a lot. Is that a word that is easily reconcilable with the work that gets done in the school and, specifically, to special education?

Leonardi:  It depends on what your metrics are. We have to look at a broad array of metrics and ways to measure ourselves in terms of success and in terms of our fiscal responsibility, especially while we’re in a period of decreasing enrollment. We have to be able to look at this in terms of no matter how many students are sitting at a school like Cider Mill, for example, or the high school, what are some of the infrastructure staffing that needs to be there regardless? And then look at that and say, what does it take, in 2018, or for the next five years to run a comprehensive high school program? What do we mean by comprehensive? How do we define that?

Does comprehensive mean only comprehensively rigorous academics or are we thinking about a broader array of students who may not be taking only AP or ECE courses, but students who may be looking at other kinds of courses that don’t necessarily exist in the current program of studies? Are we doing enough to make sure our program is sufficiently comprehensive for all of Wilton’s children? We need to take a look at what does it mean to have a good social, and emotional, and mental health programs that make sure our kids maintain a level of mental health, so that they can succeed moving forward and they’re not succumbing to the pressure and stresses that they feel that are so much a part of a community like ours.

You have to look at those things, and then separate them from increasing and decreasing enrollment. When Dr. Levenson spoke, the Board of Finance asked him the question, “What are some of the metrics to look at related to when a district is in declining enrollment?” And I thought Dr. Levenson’s ideas deserved some conversation about how to look at staffing in periods of declining enrollment. Wilton has a lot of work to do–the Board of Finance and the Board of Education, to build trust with each other, and that we understand each other’s language.

Dr. Smith has worked hard in pulling together the Business and Operations Committee, so that we can start to bridge some of the information and come to consensus and common understandings about what are some of the drivers of this work. Hopefully we can develop some comparative metrics to our like districts so they can see that we’re in the ballpark–in terms of staffing, in terms of results, in terms of fiscal spending, in terms of decision making models. We have some work to do to be able to present information in ways that speak to the Board of Finance and hopefully we can develop those common understandings in the years to come. So it doesn’t need to be so acrimonious.

GMW:   For Wilton residents who will be sitting in that Annual Town Meeting tomorrow, what do you hope that they have gotten out of the conversations around budget leading up to Tuesday? What is it you want them to know about special education in the district?

Leonardi:  I want them to know that the faculty and staff in each of the schools are working incredibly hard to meet the needs of the broad array of students, including students with disabilities. That they do so with their eye on fiscal responsibility. That we’re working at continuous improvement and models for improving outcomes in the most fiscally responsible ways possible. I want them to know that we take their trust very seriously; and that we hope to continue to build their trust; and that we’re here to respond to their questions and concerns. And to try to meet the needs of all of Wilton’s constituent groups–children, families, taxpayers–and to maintain Wilton as a place where people really want to live, a community that takes care of its people.

I am looking forward to working collaboratively with all of the elected officials in town, with all of the community members. I’m open to hearing ideas, to sharing information about special education, what it is, what it’s not, what the law requires. I’m really open to anyone who has questions about that, and wants to learn more, and is open to learning more about the work of special education and what the law requires, so that everyone shares a common understanding and is able to work together to solve real problems, collaboratively.