Board discusses DMC report issues
District Management Group President Nathan Levenson provided feedback and input on the Wilton Public School District’s 2015 District Management Council (DMC) Report on Special Education and Struggling Students during the Board of Education’s April 5 meeting in an effort to help the board, as Superintendent Kevin Smith said, “manage expectations of residents.”
Since the report was released, Wilton residents have questioned the Board of Education about cost-saving recommendations mentioned in the DMC report.
Levenson said the DMC has “done this kind of work with more than 100 school districts in more than 25 states,” and Wilton is among “the upper third of districts” that have “embraced and worked on the recommendations” in their DMC reports.
From what he’s read in the papers, Levenson said, he knows that “not everybody [in town] necessarily agrees with that.”
Board of Education Chair Christine Finkelstein said the DMC report has been a focus of the board’s budget negotiations and deliberations “in each of the past three years,” adding that “a Board of Finance member” even “used the findings of the report to justify a call for cuts in our budget.”
Finkelstein said the report included “very specific comparisons [with] really glaring numbers” that residents have seen as signs of inefficiency.
“What do we say to members of the community who say we have this beautiful report and we [the school board] didn’t like what it said so we’re not doing it?” Finkelstein said. “Because that’s what we’re pretty much being came with.”
Levenson said he senses the district has “embraced the report” and started “working steadily and with energy and vigor to implement it.”
“We didn’t say that in writing but we can say it tonight and to whomever you want — we believe that,” he said.
Levenson said he believes the “timetable,” “complexity” and “span of control” have been lost on residents, and he acknowledged the struggles the district faces when it comes to explaining things like its high number of 504 Accommodation Plans.
“Yes, you do have a much-higher-than-average 504 rate. That’s a fact. The other fact is school leadership doesn’t get to decide that. That is a community norm that was built,” he said.
Every community the DMC has worked with over the last 20 to 30 years, Levenson said, has “created a set of norms on how [they] serve and support kids with special needs and kids who struggle.”
“If a student were to move from one town to another, where they land has a lot to do with how they’re going to be served [because] communities have built norms,” he said.
“Many districts may have never thought of a 504. We’re in districts where there’s literally half-a-percent of kids with 504s — some even lower — and they have the same kids you have.”
Levenson said it all comes down to community norms and has “nothing to do with affluence.” Those other communities, he said, just “never hit on [504s] as a route to support struggling students. You don’t have the authority to stop [giving 504s], and for places that have tried to do that unilaterally, it has been a nightmare.”
With the district “building out its social-emotional supports and intervention in reading and early intervention,” Levenson said, it should see “fewer parents asking for a 504 and referrals to special education” over time.
“You are going to have to shift some resources to provide those services. That is a more effective and a more cost-effective way to provide those services, and it’s better for kids and better for the budget,” he said.
“Over the long haul, you will be able to see fewer kids in special education and it’s possible that your staffing will come down over time, but you’ve got to first, shift, second, build, and third, meet those needs — and then it works its way through the system.”
Levenson said it’s a “very long process,” and while he can “feel and empathize with people who want it to go faster,” he said, “it just doesn’t — not here and not anywhere else.”
Levenson said the DMC would write the recommendations in the 2015 DMC report again, but would also “write them differently to be really clear that you cannot do all of them.”
“There is nothing in this report that is simple. Generally, districts tackle one or two of the [recommendations] over three to five years,” he said. “You can’t do them all, and they’re going to go slowly.”
Repurposing vs. saving
“We’re almost at three years, and somewhere along the way, the magic number of $2 million was latched onto,” said Board of Education member Glenn Hemmerle, “and we’ve heard nothing but ‘Where’s the $2 million the DMC said you’re going to save?’”
Hemmerle noted that page 29 of the DMC report states that Wilton Public Schools could:
- “Repurpose approximately $575,000.”
- “Realize approximately $817,000 that could be used towards other initiatives.”
- “Free approximately $410,000” by “adjusting occupational therapist staffing levels to those of similar communities.”
- “Repurpose approximately $168,000” by adjusting physical therapist staffing levels to those of similar communities.”
“It didn’t say ‘save’ — it said ‘repurpose’ by doing the recommendations [and] making changes,” said Hemmerle.
“Nowhere does it say we’re going to save $2 million, but somehow that got latched on to and we’ve heard it constantly.”
Hemmerle said people in town “just do not understand” the complexities of special education.
“It is mind-boggling — the complexities and what we have to try to manage through to provide the services that we, as a community, and a board, as a system, have chosen to provide for these children,” he said.
“Are there ways we could change things and repurpose that money to continue to provide services — not save it, but use it better? I’m sure there are, but they don’t come easy. It is a complex area of education — incredibly complex, with much of it out of our control.”
Hemmerle also mentioned that Wilton’s special education costs have been “fairly static year over year for the past four or five years,” while Ridgefield, for example, “is looking at a 17% increase in their special education costs.”
“We've done a very good job of managing what we in this area are providing, [which is] a really high level of service to these kids,” he said. “We’ve been relatively flat year over year.”
Hemmerle asked Levenson how the district can “solve the problem” of getting people to “understand” the DMC report and what the district is able to do.
Levenson said although he doesn’t have “a great solution,” the DMC is “happy to help in any way [it] can in trying to help people understand where the locus of control is.”
Since Wilton received its report three years ago, Levenson said, the DMC has “learned that people tend to zero in on the number and not everything that was said with it and the complexities of it.”
As a result, he said, the DMC now has “vastly fewer financial forecasts” in its reports.
The DMC is also “much more explicit about the need to go slow [and] the need to build broad-based support,” said Levenson.
He said the DMC now also makes it clear that “most districts in a three- to five-year period will move on just one or two of the [report’s] recommendations” so that it’s no longer “easy” for people to expect districts to quickly execute all the recommendations.
Education board member Lory Rothstein asked Levenson if he would consider submitting “a supplemental report” for the board to present to its constituency that takes into account what was done right in the 2015 report, as well as how certain the data should have been presented “differently.”
Levenson said the DMC is “certainly open to doing that.”