With very few residents who attended the proposed 2016-17 school budget presentation that superintendent Kevin Smith made last week, GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Smith to review what’s in the budget for next year and to learn how it was put together.

As Board of Education chair Bruce Likly wrote earlier this week, it’s crucial for residents to know what’s in the education budget, not only because it affects their taxes but also because it should reflect the budget that residents want for the kind of district programs that residents want.

To get residents engaged with the budget process, Smith says he doesn’t want to use such ‘scare tactics’ that have gotten people to budget presentations in years past, when threatened cuts to world language programs and textbook budgets have mobilized increased resident interest. But he does want to explain to readers what’s important about the budget and what is at stake.

The Board of Finance gave Smith and the BoE guidance to for a 1.1-percent increase over last year’s budget. Instead, Smith’s proposed budget of $80,972,640 reflects a 1.27-percent increase, or $1,016,617 above last year’s budget.

We’ve included some of the slides from Smith’s presentation, but the entire presentation can be found online.

GMW:  What do you want people who haven’t seen your budget yet to know?

KS:  My message is number one, there is a lot to be proud of here in this school system. Kids have tremendous experiences. I love that GOOD Morning Wilton has been posting to #WiltonWayCT on Twitter. I look through all the pictures now once a week and it’s thrilling to see all the unique and engaging experiences kids are having all across the district. As time goes on, more and more teachers and people post to that thread. I want people to know that we are working very hard to provide a very good educational program that meets the needs of all our kids.

We focus on all our areas of need, rightfully so, and we are addressing those areas of need. Student safety and school climate is always a concern of mine. I think we’ve taken some very positive steps forward. I know we have ongoing concerns about bullying and mean behavior. I’m really proud of the work that the students and staff in all of the buildings are doing through the safe measures work. That will continue to get better.

I’m excited that the High School continues to offer new courses, so the Project Lead the Way/Intro to Engineering course will be a really positive enhancement overall to the curriculum at the High School.

The work we’re doing to support our teachers to get better is also really positive. Certainly it comes with lots of challenges, but we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re trying to do this in the most cost-effective way as possible. Ultimately the bottom line of a 1.27-percent increase is representative of that. My hope is the community will look at this budget, look at the work we’re trying to do, look at the outcomes, and really agree that Wilton remains one of the best school districts in the country and continues to get better.

 GMW:  For basically a bare-bones budget—only a 1.27 percent increase when this community has been used to much bigger increases in the past—this budget is still chock full with initiatives. There’s a lot that’s still in this budget at only a 1.27-percent increase. 

Kevin Smith:  That’s correct. I believe we are focused on the right areas. There’s a theory that makes perfect sense, of the Instructional Core:  you need to align all of your resources to impact the instructional core. That’s where kids and teachers and content live. If you change anything related to teaching then you need to stay consistent and coherent, you have to adjust the impact to the students and content. We’re really focused on those interrelated areas almost exclusively.

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It sounds like there are a lot of initiatives, but they all go together hand in glove. So we are making sure all of our major curriculum areas reflect the kinds of skills and experiences we want kids to have, are aligned with common core standards. We know it’s a major shift from the way we’ve taught previously, so providing instructional coaches makes sense. We want to support our teachers and their work. We also know we have kids who aren’t yet meeting standards so providing interventionists to help support them and get them up to grade level also makes sense.

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GMW:  What did you want to address with this budget?

KS:  Wilton has a very long history of educational excellence. The overwhelming majority of people say they’ve come to Wilton because of the quality of the school system. Overall we are ensuring that we are continuing to provide a very high quality educational experience for the 21st century. What we know is the skills and dispositions that kids need to have going forward in the future are very different than what was expected in previous years, because of the way the world has shifted as a result of emerging technology, a focus on STEM, the increasing globalization. Really, we’re aligning a program that’s future oriented.

GMW:  You’re coming off of significant changes over the last two years. Have you started to see the impact of that?

KS:  I think so but it’s a little early to say. I was speaking to a mom, and she said to me that she was seeing some positive improvements in the area of mathematics. Which I took as a very encouraging sign. But look gross the district, we’re just one year or so into the first round of revised English/Language Arts curriculum, so that’s still taking hold. We’ve only introduced in the primary grades Words Their Way and Jolly Phonics, so that’s going to take some time to make sure we have a really balanced literacy program in the early grades.

We are making adjustments in the math curriculum. Chuck [Smith, assistant superintendent] is going to be coming forward with a curriculum proposal to add a new section of mathematics at the middle school to address some of the concerns there and also at the high school. Having the benchmark data is critical, so I’m really anxious to see the data from this next round of tests, and see if it jibes with where we think we’re supposed to be.

I can’t really point to any one thing and say, definitively, yes. The feedback that I’ve received about the enrichment programs has all been positive, so we’re continuing to extend that program and provide experiences for children that really match their interests, and hopefully will stoke some passions.

GMW:  You typically say to the building administrators, ‘Give me the budget you want, the budget you need.’ Are there some areas that, if the BoF hadn’t said 1.1-percent, would you have preferred to have done more? Do you think this is still ‘too lean’?

KS:  The budget we presented is the budget we need. You take in all manner of considerations. But I don’t think that we left anything on the table, in terms of programs that we must have and that we didn’t yet introduce or that we’re deferring. Part of our decision making process, is that because some of our initiatives are so new, like professional coaching for instance, I suspect if you talk to Chuck or some of the coaches, they would say, ‘Sure, we could use a few more coaches.’ But I think it’s more prudent to establish a program, wait and see, get feedback and make the necessary adjustments. Then if we need to add, we’ll add, but that’s a multi-year process. I think we’re in the right place.

GMW:  For people who have missed last week’s meeting or your presentation before to the PTA, tell us what the big drivers are for the budget increase.

KS:  The overwhelming majority of our budget is tied up in salaries and benefits. Most school budgets are like that, we’re not dissimilar to anybody. We manage contracted cost increases in both those areas. We’ve had really good news in health care, and that’s representative of savings on the whole, rather than a cost increase. Moving as many of our staff as possible to a high-deductible health plan structure has helped lower the base cost of the health insurance program, so that’s been a good impact on the budget.

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We’re also monitoring enrollment very carefully, so we make adjustments as necessary. We’re planning on going down two classroom teachers at Cider Mill, and 1.75 at the High School. That’s really a reflection of shifting enrollment. We might be going up one teacher at Miller-Driscoll, again in response to shifting enrollment—we adjust as necessary.

Last year we invested pretty heavily in a study of our special education, and we got some very powerful recommendations back, and [we’re] working on implementing those recommendations. One is to shift resources so that we are ensuring the kids with the greatest needs get time with the experts who can best address those needs. So we have started a slow shift away from a model where we’re as heavily reliant on paraprofessionals to a model where we are trying to target specific services—from reading specialists, special education teachers, etc..

The other area in terms of personnel, we started a process a year ago, where all of the administrative leadership staff here meets with the principals and we look at every single position. As a result of some consolidations here, we were able to reduce some administrative clerical positions. We went down 1.5.

We’re really trying to look at function, look at need, and make decisions, without assuming that just because we have it that we need to have it or should have it. We’re trying to channel resources to the places where they’re going to make the biggest difference.

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The one that stands out for me as the most troublesome are within ‘Purchased Services.’ Our special education transportation [costs] is going up dramatically. That’s one that has a lot of conversations with Ken [Post, director of financial planning and operations] and Ann [Paul, assistant superintendent for special education] and I know they’ve been in touch with Mary Channing [transportation coordinator], and just trying to manage that. But we’re sending kids out of district and it’s very expensive to have them travel to the schools and placements that are providing their educational services. We try to ride share with surrounding communities as much as we’re able. But that cost really stands out as an increase that outpaces others in our budget, and that’s worrisome.

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GMW:  Do you see that happening in other districts?

KS:  In general the cost of services, all across the state is a concern. I hear colleagues talk about it all the time. There was just an article in the Norwalk Hour about Norwalk’s concerns about the costs of special education. They have similar concerns as do many other places.

GMW:  Even with the -6.65 in personnel reductions, the cost of people working in the district still went up, based on negotiated salary increases. In past years, we’ve heard, ‘If we have to cut, it’s going to have to be in people.’ You have delivered a budget at 1.25-percent, but the BoF said 1.1-percent. If your current proposed budget reflects what you need personnel-wise, then where do the cuts come from?

KS:  It would be unfortunate if the Board of Finance chose to reduce our budget. I understand very clearly what they are trying to accomplish. And I hope they see very clearly they see me as a willing partner in that work, and that they see the Board of Education as a willing partner in that work. But what I’m trying to do is insure some integrity in this process. I wouldn’t put forward a budget that’s inflated, anticipating a cut—I don’t think that’s the right way to do business.

If we needed to make some cuts, in this particular budget this year, I don’t think personnel would be the first place I would go. We could look at peeling back an additional 2nd grade teacher, that would impact class sizes a little bit, but I don’t know that that would be my first choice.

We are investing pretty significantly in technology so depending on what we needed to do I might choose to defer some of those expenditures, although that would be very disappointing because we’re trying to increase and improve our capacity to serve students and teachers. We’re investing in the infrastructure and trying to increase our access to devices, because so many of our teachers are shifting in that direction.

There was a line for replacement of the heaters in the Middlebrook gymnasium. That’s about $50,000. I would go back and see if we could squeeze another year of life out of those. They’re past their useful life at this point, and you hate to defer expenditures because you can create more problems down the road.

We’d look at all those things and come up with a decision that would be least painful. But again, the budget at this point is the budget we think we need.

GMW:  Given the classroom teacher cuts, we’re starting to see class sizes at the higher end of the range than we’ve seen before. 

KS:  At Cider Mill, in particular over the last couple years, has seen classes with 24 students. We’re watching that. Aside from a general concern with the number of kids in a room, I haven’t heard anyone come back and say, ‘Comparatively speaking, this year was tough because there were so many kids.’ I haven’t heard that from teachers who are working with 23-24 kids, and I haven’t heard it from parents.

I know [Cider Mill principal] Jenn Mitchell pays really close attention and we’re looking at it but we’re not seeking to across the board raise class sizes. Wilton has a long history and tradition of operating in a range that feels very comfortable, so we’re trying to really adhere to that.

GMW:  How did the Special Education community respond to the changes and cuts in paraprofessionals, five in total? With our district operating on a model of inclusion, frequently paras in the classroom are working with the entire class.  

KS:  I’d be careful not to overgeneralize, but we did share this budget with the PAB (Parent Advisory Board) and they have certainly tracked the work of the DMC [special education] study and the recommendations. I think they are in support of our efforts to improve the overall special education program, and are in support of our efforts to making sure that kids are having their needs address by the right people.

That’s really the question here. This isn’t meant to be a slight against paraprofessionals. Some of the hardest working and most dedicated professionals we have in the district are our para force. But, it’s reasonable to ask the question, ‘Is the right person providing the right supports?’ In the past, sometimes we were relying on paras to provide instructional intervention. I don’t know that that’s the right thing to do when you’re trying to close gaps with kids, particularly in reading or mathematics.

Again, I hate to overgeneralize because this group of people come with all different strengths and skills. The work we’re doing as part of this process is to define what is the best way to use a paraprofessional in our school system. Some of the early conversation is, we’re helping kids in an inclusive model, some of the kids who might have social, emotional and behavioral needs, to function in a classroom. That work, providing the behavioral support, prompting and redirection, that can be the kind of work that a paraprofessional can do, and we relegate the instructional support and intervention work to people like our reading specialist, or who have expertise in a particular subject area.

GMW:  You mentioned investments in technology and the Learning Commons initiative. Why is it important that the budget support those areas?

KS:  Absolutely! This is reflective of a shift in needs borne out of a shift in the way that the world operates. The movement toward the Learning Commons model, these media centers and learning commons are going to be the hubs of the school. We’re going to be able to create really flexible environments that are tailored to students’ needs and interests. It’s really going to carry us forward in terms of promoting personalized education. I’m really excited about this work.

If you get the chance, look at the work that Tim Ley is doing in the media center and learning commons approach that’s used at Miller-Driscoll. It’s really neat to see the work we’re doing with our youngest kids.

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GMW:   The district is losing two incredible music teachers at Wilton High School—Chip Gawle and John Rhodes. How will you replace them?

KS: Well, you can’t replace them! Those guys are unbelievable. We are going to be tapping our networks and really trying to find individuals that will match their spirit and their commitment. Both Chip and John have agreed to continue to serve in a consultancy capacity so we can ensure a very smooth transition from this year to next. I’m grateful for their ongoing commitment to the children of this community.

GMW:  Will we have a marching band next year, with them leaving?

KS:  I would expect we’ll have a marching band next year. The marching band is one of the staple features of Wilton High School. Last year there was a magnificent number of kids, the largest ever, so why we would walk away from that makes no sense. We’re all in agreement that there are experiences here we want to maintain, that’s certainly one of them.