School Budget Q&A with Superintendent Kevin Smith: What’s at Stake?

In one week, the Board of Finance is holding a public hearing on the proposed school budget for next year (Monday, March 20). Superintendent Kevin Smith is concerned about the economic situation in Wilton and what may happen to the budget he and his administrators have put together–he said at last week’s BoE meeting that it is weighing heavily on him.

All this week, (depending on what the weather will allow), he is hoping to meet with parents to talk about what is in the budget, find out what input they have, and communicate what’s might happen if cuts are made. He’s trying to encourage as much support and engagement in the process as possible. Two such meetings are happening today (Monday, March 13), at parent coffees (Middlebrook Media Center, 1-2:30 p.m. and 6-7:30 p.m.).

The stated purpose is to “present info and give stakeholders the opportunity to share thoughts, questions, suggestions, and concerns. Also providing info on the current financial climate at local and state level, as well as potential threats to the budget and what they could mean for the schools.”

We spoke with Smith over the weekend to find out what is at stake for this year’s budget.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  You’ve said that even though you’ve come in at a 0.0%, flat budget, you’re afraid that the Board of Finance will still ask for significant cuts.

Kevin Smith:  That’s exactly right. I don’t want to set the BoF up as the villain because I don’t think they are. All municipalities, like ours, are between a rock and a hard place. My concern is, as a school district, we have been responsive over the last several years to the current fiscal climate. We’ve made very judicious choices in managing enrollment decline and also investing in the professional infrastructure of the district, so we can make changes we need to make and continue to improve.

I’m concerned that major reduction really is going to set us backwards. As I’ve heard time and time again, people move to Wilton because of the schools. Our job is to make the schools the strongest they can be. I’m just concerned that we’ll have to reduce programming and really set us back a ton.

GMW:  I’m going to play devil’s advocate, with criticisms you’ll likely hear. One is, ‘You have not been able to cut inefficiencies. You need to make the system ore efficient.’

KS:  I don’t know, when we talk about inefficiencies, what we mean. There are perspectives and opinions about efficiencies. But the Wilton Public Schools built the district to be efficient–we have very large schools so we get the economy of scale by having four schools–two elementary schools rather than two several smaller, other elementary schools. So we have a single administrative unit at each building for 800, 900, 1,000-plus kids. To me that is efficiency. And that’s inherent in the design of our schools.

We have looked very carefully, and continue to look very carefully at our staffing. If you look at reductions we’ve made in administrative staffing, in some of the classified ranks, everywhere we can we’ve tried to combine jobs. This year when [transportation coordinator] Mary Channing retired, we chose not to replace her with a full-time position. We combined her position with another position in the central office. To me that is an example of efficiency; we’ve done that in several areas.

There are fewer support staff than there was two years ago, and we continue to look for those kinds of opportunities.

GMW:  Conversely, when you start paring staff, doesn’t that make it more IN-efficient?

KS:  These are choices. These are complex organizations and they need to have the supports in place so teachers can have the resources they need, so parents continue to get the high level of service they expect. If we continue to reduce, that does absolutely impact the quality of the service we’re able to provide. So far, the choices we’ve made have not negatively impacted services–that’s not any feedback I’ve received yet. But the point is well taken, that’s one of the potential outcomes.

GMW:  Some of the ideas about efficiency has been about combining services with the town.

KS:  There really are two areas we’re looking at. One is facilities. We’ve done that when [former facilities manager] John Murphy left the district, first selectman Lynne Vanderslice and I spoke and met with Chris Burney. We’re in a situation right now, where Chris is supervising facilities for both the town and the schools. That constitutes salary savings. We’ve made internal adjustments to help make that process better. So far it’s a success.

One of the outcomes is going to be, as Chris gets further into his work on both the town and the school side, is that development really good, clear, long term facilities plans. So having the option of having him oversee both makes a great deal of sense.

The other idea we’ve been exploring is in the finance offices. I don’t think we’re ready–in fact I know we’re not ready–to do any immediate combining. There’s no economy of scale yet. We’re aware of where the opportunities are. Over the next couple years we’ll be able to look for opportunities to combine services–payroll, purchasing, and those kinds of functions. But that’s a bit longer term we have a bit more work to do to lay out the groundwork. But I see that as opportunity as well and something we’ve been talking about for almost a year now.

GMW:  What about people who say we already spend so much on our schools, that they are way above other schools. We already overspend on our schools. We already have such diverse programs, we have extra than what’s needed. We have ‘want-to-haves’ but we need to pare back to just the ‘need-to-haves.’ 

KS:  For many, many years, Wilton has invested substantially in its schools. The outcome in investment is very, very high quality program. Comprehensively, we have a very comprehensive educational program that allows the kids to get not only what they need educationally and a core academic education, but also tends to a much more wholistic education.

Students have an opportunity to explore a variety of areas. One of the more intangible outcomes that’s harder to measure is how we are able to provide resources that enable kids to pursue their passions, and that’s exactly what we want. We can make a connection to kids connecting to their passions and interests and pursuing those as they move on to college and other opportunities.

I point to not just our very, very high graduation rate, but also our six-year college graduation rate. That number is at 82-percent, which is very, very positive, and speaks to the quality of the preparation that they receive here in Wilton, but also the comprehensiveness of that preparation. New folks are looking at whether, coming to Wilton or a surrounding community, we also have to continue to compete with those towns, because we’re trying to grow Wilton. To do that, we need to maintain at least comparable programs.

GMW:  That’s a good segue to talk about coaching. We hear other schools have coaching too. Someone remarked during public comment the other night about the cost of bringing in 11 new administrators, and asking about why we’re taking this step and where is the proof about whether it works? When we’re hearing teachers unhappy with it, why is this a priority in the budget.

KS:  To clarify–we did not bring in 11 new administrators. Coaches are in the teachers union and many of them are former classroom teachers themselves. Fundamentally the issues are these:  number one, across the board the curriculum has changed and is changing. We have new math curriculum that requires a change in approach to instruction and pedagogy. We have new reading and writing curriculum, that also requires change in approach and pedagogy. The best way to provide support to teachers and managing those changes is through side-by-side coaching. That is an approach that does work, is research based, and if you would look beyond Wilton, not only around us in CT, but across the country, districts everywhere are moving to a job-imbedded coaching approach because of the recognition that it is the most effective way to support teachers as they continue to grow and learn professionally.

The push-back has been, as the decision has been made, because we haven’t provided content-specific coaches for every single area, in trying to be judicious and prudent and financially responsible. We’ve hired coaches with the intention of providing support in math and science, or ELA and social studies. We’re also working through a sequential process of curriculum improvement, and there’s a clear recognition that we can’t attack everything all at once. So we need to spread it out.

Some feedback is that some folks haven’t yet experienced the benefit and then there are a variety of others that make it more complicated. For some the concern is that they haven’t bought into the coaching model. They don’t recognize the value, and also worry about, in light of the significantly strained fiscal environment, that some of their colleagues are going to lose their jobs, and that’s just ratcheting up the anxiety in general.

GMW:  Conversely, there may be people who feel there should be MORE resources put toward coaching, like additional coaches.

KS:  Absolutely. [Assistant superintendent] Chuck Smith could make a strong argument for that, as well as our coordinators and others who really have a clear picture about what it is we’re trying to do in supporting teachers.

It’s really important to understand that these are not short term solutions. We are looking at the big picture and trying to construct a system that is going to provide quality support to teachers in the long term, and help us to continue to incrementally improve our practice and serve all of our kids at a very high level.

GMW:  What are the things you feel are missing from your budget. If you had more resources, what would you include that isn’t there now?

KS:  It’s about timing and intensity of support. If we had unlimited resources, the supervision and support of teachers in special education–we [currently] have a very thin administrative model in that area. They are working very diligently to provide support to teachers, but that’s an area where we could really benefit from an additional person–either a secondary supervisor, or special education coach to work with teachers in development and support of IEPs.

The other area, we’ve been in ongoing discussions with Office Depot/Office Max, and they have a partnership with IBM, and they’re developing a software product that really accesses Watson’s predictive and analytic capabilities to provide much more customized feedback for students as we’re planning how best to personalize their learning experiences. That would be another area I’d be interested in investing in.

Thirdly, we need to address some of the facility infrastructure. Some of the flooring in each of our schools needs to be addressed. We don’t yet have together a clear, comprehensive plan. So I was more comfortable deferring that, but that doesn’t mean the need’s not there.

Beyond that, I would continue to try to specialize better. We have one coach at the high school, one coach at the middle school, whose responsibility is both mathematics and science. Because of that scarce resource we’ve chosen to do mathematics first. We are initiating a science curriculum review, with the transition to Next Generation Science Standards that’s going to require a new curriculum and a different approach across the board to teaching. So those teachers are going to need quite a lot of support.

GMW:  In those things, it sounds to someone who hasn’t been a close observer, that those aren’t direct, in-classroom, student-interacting resources or things. 

KS:  If you’re talking about immediate, direct contact, like a classroom teacher, then you could choose to look at it that way. I would argue that it is direct support to students because the whole point of supporting teachers is to help them grow professionally and better serve students. To me that’s a high-leverage strategy for ratcheting up support and instruction for all students.

GMW:  Talk about the likelihood that you’ll be asked to make cuts.

KS:  It’s very likely. That’s the general sense I get. We–the building principals and central office administrators–have been working over the last several weeks to really try to adopt a set of guidelines as we’re facing potential cuts. We can try to be clear in our approach and help people understand some recommendations. We’re beginning with whatever dollars spent that don’t directly impact students. In a 0.0% increase budget, most of our spending is tied up in staffing. There are not a lot of places to go. But that’s our intention. So we’re trying to develop a range of considerations at various funding cut levels.

GMW:  I could ask, ‘What’s at risk?’ But I imagine you’ll say you don’t want to give anyone ideas what’s expendable.

KS:  That comes up all the time. There are no games with this budget. This is a philosophy that I have. I put together a funding proposal that I believe we need. There are no mysteries, and there’s a lot of detail. We moved some things around to try to make it more clear. I’ve gotten feedback on that too–comparing this year’s budget to last year’s is hard because we moved a number of items around. In the next budget it will be more clear but we did that to align with the ED-01 and ED-02. Also to have our budget be more transparent.

There are no hidden costs in there, it’s pretty wide open. If we have to cut, we’re going to have to make choices. The choices, depending on the amount, will really signify what the cost is to the district, in terms of deferred programs or reducing programs or reducing staffing. Part of my motivation in engaging parents in conversations is I want to get feedback on what people in this community value most in the schools, and I think we’ll hear a wide, wide range. Certainly, class size comes up time and again.

But there are programs we’ve tried to add back in the last couple of years, that if we had to face a serious funding reduction, would be threatened. So, we worked hard to add enrichment opportunities back, particularly at Middlebrook and Cider Mill. We were able to add world language back to third grade–I think that’s phenomenal for kids and this community. I would hate to see those things placed in jeopardy. For me, it’s important to get feedback from parents so we can be informed as we’re putting considerations out for the board and the rest of the community to examine.

GMW:  If worst case scenario comes about, given the pension situation in Hartford, we as a town may face $1 million, $2 million, $4 million in cuts.

KS:  The $4 million number is the bill this town would receive if the governor’s proposal was enacted and Wilton was billed for a third of the pension cost. That’s completely outrageous and I would encourage all members of the community to reach out to Gail Lavielle, Toni Boucher and Tom O’Dea, and the Governor himself. Let their opinions be known. To pass a bill like that onto the municipalities that have no input on the design of the program, is just outrageous. I feel very strongly about that.

GMW:  Talk about this year’s approach to special education. It’s always an area that people who don’t have involvement with special education, don’t necessarily understand why we spend what we do on it.

KS:  This is another area that, not just Wilton, but we have many kids in our school that have complex needs, and a range of complex needs. It’s our obligation, both morally and under the law, to provide a quality educational experience and to address those needs as effectively as we are able to.

Because students change year to year, and needs change year to year, that’s an area of the budget that continues to be very volatile. We have made efforts, we came forward with a plan to develop a community-based, 18-21 transition program, which is something I wanted to do since I arrived here in Wilton. If you look at the financials on that would represent a slight savings in the first year in terms of total cost. More importantly, we’re going to create the opportunity to serve our kids in our community. Which is most important–for parents, for kids, for the community. As we develop that program over time, we’ll continue to see the savings in that area increase, because we won’t be spending money to out-of-district programs.

Also on the SPED front, a week or so ago I had a meeting with Katie Roy, the executive director of the CT School Finance Project, and that group has put together a proposal to create a funding co-op to finance special education across the state. It’s a very, very interesting proposal; it’s designed to be set up sort of like an insurance pool. What Kate and her team found when they conducted an analysis of SPED costs across the state was, although at the local level costs are volatile year-over-year, at the state level they’re not. So the plan they put together could really benefit a community like ours. I’m interested in talking more about that as one possible opportunity for our town and surrounding towns to have more stability and predictability in the costs of special education.

GMW:  Can that get implemented in the 2017-18 school year?

KS: No, it’s still 2-3 years out. I think there’s a bill in front of the education community, testimony will be heard on March 16. The bill suggests putting together a committee to study it.

GMW:  What feedback have you received from parents whose children are receiving services?

KS:  We haven’t received a whole lot of feedback in general. We’ve revamped our approach to providing pre-K services, and from parents that’s received a lot of positive feedback.

GMW:  The school resource officer position. That’s been mentioned as part of discussions about the Board of Selectmen’s town budget–and an area that might have to get cut there. 

KS:  We have two SROs. We fund one of them. The town funds the second one. When you’re in a position where you have to reduce, we are all obligated to look at all areas of our budget. That would be a disappointment if that was the decision that was made. It speaks to the climate. We added this position at the recommendation of the Wilton Security Task Force. We also developed a safe-school climate coordinator position. The work is just coming on line. This work is about building reliable systems that best support our kids and provide opportunities for early intervention.

GMW:  Are there specific things in the budget or that have been cut from the budget that the public should know?

KS:  We worked very diligently with this proposal to bring it in flat, so it’s a 0.0% increase. That was the right thing to do. Some of the choices we made were reducing positions in light of enrollment decline, deferring some costs we might have wanted to go forward with. But the overwhelming majority of our budget is tied up in personnel. We are a people industry, and we need people to support kids. We have presented a spending plan that retains current class sizes, that continues to provide support to teachers, and provide funding to enable the district to move forward.

As we’ve been talking about where we might have to go for funding reductions, one of the questions on the table is whether we would have to defer the addition of the second library media specialist at Middlebrook and the High School as part of the development of the digital learning plan and the Library Learning Commons. That’s really tied hand-to-hand as we move forward with the plan to go to one-to-one program next year. We’ve come forward with a really good, exciting plan. As a district we’re really excited about it, we’ve been talking about it for a long time. The approach is appropriately differentiated K-12, and we’re moving our district forward in a way that’s good for kids. I’m concerned that’s at risk.

I’m looking for a conversation with parents about what is it we really value in our district. Where do we see the various different pieces and services coming together in support of kids? It’s a question about quality and how and to what degree to we see the quality of the program?

GMW:  Has there been conversation about increasing fees or other opportunities for revenue?

KS:  In the current spending proposal, the only area where the fee structure has changed substantially is the fee structure in the preschool. But as we look at all the other considerations as we look at potential for reduction, we have to look at participation fees, rental fees and the like.

GMW:  What haven’t we hit on?

KS:  When I was hired, and working on an entry plan, talking to parents, to teachers, to the Board and staff, one of the things that was clear was we are feeling like we’re ready to move forward. The planning we’ve done and investments we’ve made have been in response to that. I think about the new courses around STEM that we’ve added at the high school. We’re coming forward with a proposal to enable our students to take some virtual, online classes, which is really exciting. It’s going to continue to increase our capacity to provide more opportunities for kids. We’ve moved forward in a responsible way and we’re going to start to see tangible improvements in student outcomes in really short order.

I worry that people lose sight of that in all of the talk around funding and all of the different fiscal constraints. We need to take a  moment to refocus on the high-quality staff we have and the quality of the support we provide them in service of the kids. And look at the plan we’ve put together and the actual steps we’re taking to move forward here. There’s a great deal to celebrate here. I’m looking for the opportunity to talk about that with parents. And get feedback about our progress here as well.

GMW:  The plan for that feedback?

KS:  In addition to today’s meetings, I’ll be attending PTA meetings, I’ll be reaching out to staff–we heard loud and clear from teachers that they want to be involved in these conversations, and I think that’s absolutely right. We have opportunities to do that as well. Big picture, we’re really interested in getting people involved in the conversation.

GMW:  Last year the conversation around the budget seemed to be very emotional, about the impact cuts could have. This year, it seems you’ve taken the emotion out and it’s much more straightforward.

KS: It’s always my intention to be straightforward. At the end of the day, the community, the people that live in Wilton and pay the taxes and send their kids to our schools, have to decide what they want in our school system and how much they’re willing to pay to provide that. My job is to make recommendations based on my expertise and the expertise of the rest of our staff, and respond to the feedback of the residents and the parents and the other taxpayers.

What we’re trying to do, and the work that’s underway, it’s not a menu of choices, but I want to provide as clearly as possible what are the choices and what are the iterations. We are all–teachers, administrators–our identities are tied intrinsically to their work. So it gets very, very emotional when you’re talking about the potential of reducing staff. These are our friends and colleagues and valued neighbors. It’s really just painful conversation. So it’s hard to separate the emotion. But we’re at a point that if this is what the fiscal climate is going to be going forward then the question is where is the quality we see, what do we want, and how much are we willing to invest.

GMW:  If they can’t make those meetings, how can they get in touch?

KS:  Call or email, and we’ll try to work with people as best as we can to create opportunities to get involved in the conversation. Another opportunity is the Board of Finance’s public hearing for people to come to listen and to provide feedback.

I’m just trying to engage people in the conversation. That’s part of my worry, that I’m not sure where the conversation about the budget is taking place. There is risk here, and my hope is people will engage.

 

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