Okay, Bruce Likly and I didn’t really drive around together, but for today’s “From the Driver’s Seat” column, I wanted to have an unfiltered conversation with the chair of Wilton’s Board of Education. Starting tonight, the town holds two public hearings to discuss the proposed 2012-2013 town budget—this evening’s meeting will cover the education budget as submitted by the BoE, and Tuesday night’s meeting will review the budget put together by the selectmen.
Both budget hearings will take place at the Middlebrook school auditorium, starting at 7:30 pm each evening. The meetings are forums for the public to ask questions and express their views about what should (or shouldn’t) be in the budget. Residents will vote on the budget in May at the town meeting.
Likly and I met for coffee on a recent morning, and the only subject he asked that we not discuss was recent events at Miller Driscoll’s PTA. All other topics were open for questions, and of course the budget was first and foremost on my mind.
I think it’s clear that I’m an on-the-record advocate for passing the budget the schools ask for, and I thought it would be helpful for readers to hear Likly’s take on this year’s budget to help them make up their own minds. It was the first face-to-face conversation he and I had ever had, although I’ve watched him at many BoE meetings. Now sitting with him one-on-one, I found him to be a thoughtful, pragmatic advocate for both students and the town as a whole. He was personable and easy to relate to, and it’s clear he cares a great deal about our district.
Our chat was lengthy, and I had to edit significantly for this space. However, you can read the full transcript of our conversation by (or by clicking on the PDF icon to the right).
HBH: How have your first couple of months been as the BOE Chair of the Board of Education?
Bruce Likly: I think it’s been an enjoyable learning experience. I have a lot of respect for all the members of the board. I appreciate their varying perspectives and I think each of them comes to the table with not only those differing perspectives but also an open mind and a willingness to learn and engage and do what’s right for the total population—not just the schools but also the town. In the town there are a lot of different factions, and the board clearly understands that. They understand the challenges people face relative to the economy and they understand the challenges the seniors face.
HBH: I’ve taken my share of heat for my support of the school budget increases. I imagine you hear from people with very strong opinions and from all sides about all sorts of issues related to the schools—in a way that’s sometimes conducive to dialog, and sometimes not. What do you think about the kinds of things you hear from residents?
BL: Wiltonians have an incredible passion for Wilton, and that is one of the town’s greatest consistencies. We are an affluent community, we’re a community of well-educated citizens. That level of intelligence, thoughtfulness and passion drives an interest in what’s happening now and what happens next. They are thirsty for information, and I think that’s part of why things are quieter this year than in previous years: I’d like to believe that they’re getting the information before they ask for it. So that they’re able to answer some of their own questions.
I’ve been almost a maniac about asking people to contact the board if they have questions. No question is a crazy question! Ask, we’ll answer. I think part of the reason it’s quiet is we’ve started to put more and more information out on the district website, we put the full budget on the website—line item by line item—even before the first BOE meeting to talk about the budget. We put the full listing of the BOE’s questions to the administration on the budget up there. We put all of the Board of Finance’s questions to the BOE up there. I think people will see that questions that we’re posing to the administration and that the BOF is posing to the BOE are the questions that should be asked. And the answers that are coming back are thoughtful, comprehensive and they’re not unrealistic questions. And we’re getting them answered.
HBH: Do you think enough people get involved in the process? Would you like to see more people at meetings, writing emails (to you, or to the BoE or the BoF) as they’ve done in the past?
BL: I interpret the quietness in town as people being reasonably—reasonably—comfortable with how things are going. They’re not vocal because they’re not overly upset. They think things are running smoothly. That being said, there does need to be some level of discussion to make sure that all points are being heard.
Wilton is a happy, quiet town. My sense is the town doesn’t like to be in upheaval; it doesn’t like to be in an uproar or overly vocal, and I respect that. Personally, I like being a kind of quiet guy, so I’d like to believe that some of the quietness is because people think things are moving in the right direction.
HBH: Sometimes I go to BOE meetings and I’m the only person in the seats watching. Would you like to see more residents take part in the process, even if it’s just as witnesses to the process?
BL: No, I respect the fact that the people in Wilton are overbooked [chuckles] just like our kids are! I think what I would like to see is more brainstorming. OK, this is the way the system is running now, and we’re generally happy with how it’s running. It is a high performing school district. Is it perfect? No. Is it better than most school districts in the country? Absolutely. But it would be really nice to have an ongoing dialog of, “What can we do to make things better?” That I’d love to have, and I think that’s something that we ought to look at going forward.
HBH: Sometimes the complaint that I hear is, “We speak up at meetings, we’ve asked for things and it seems every year our voice isn’t heard.” I don’t necessarily think that’s a correct assessment of the situation, but that might be the perception that some people have articulated, especially in the last couple years. It’s refreshing to hear that you welcome the input.
BL: I think that’s important and one of the things that would be valuable with that input is, not just a negative observation but one or two constructive ideas within the confines of what we can actually do and how we might be able to address it.
The board is all volunteers, and there are six people that put in a tremendous amount of personal time. We’re trying to do the most thoughtful job that we can. We’re not perfect. I prove that with my procedural gaffes from time to time. [laughs] But I think the administration is really focused on the right things. But we don’t, as a town, always know that, and that is one of the things I want to work on—trying to elevate the level of communications on some of the amazing things that are done. They get lost—they’re consistently doing a good job.
It’s incredible, the caliber of teacher that we have! We forget about it. But it’s amazing. One of the statistics you’ll see in the presentation I make to the town [tonight] is over 90 percent of our faculty has advanced degrees. That’s incredible! Our kids are being taught by some very bright people. It’s not overstating to say I get goose-bumps thinking about that. I don’t know how many people know that.
HBH: Let’s talk specifically about this year’s budget. Can you give me your general thought about the budget the BoF will be discussing with the town at the hearing tonight?
BL: I think it’s a very thoughtful budget, that came about through understanding and an appreciation for the challenges of the economy, and challenges for what the town is facing, balanced against some of the investments that we need to make in order to continue the schools’ advancements—with the assumption that maybe the economy isn’t going to get better right away. But we need to be able to continue on a path of constant improvement.
Sometimes it’s a challenging word, but efficiency is important. Effectiveness is important. And quality is important. I believe that this budget reflects not only a concern for what can we afford, but also making intelligent investments in areas that will help us increase quality and manage costs over time.
HBH: From my viewpoint as an observer over the last two years, not only did there seem to be less frustration at the town level this time, but also the level and discourse within the BOE, and also between the boards [of finance and education]—it seems a lot smoother this year.
BL: Well, it is a new Board of Ed. Fifty percent of the people are new, and they bring a fresh perspective. I think that’s valuable. I think the collaboration between the BOE and the administration, while it’s always good, has been really enjoyable for me to be a part of and watch, not only as the new chair but as a board member it’s been exciting. And as a parent [of a Wilton Schools student] as well.
As chairman, I’ve actively tried to make sure we’re doing everything we can to have the three town boards collaborate and communicate at appropriate levels. We still have a legislative responsibility to do what we believe is best for the school district. That is mandated to us through law. That is our first and foremost concern, and always will be. But doing that within the understanding of what the challenges are of the BOF and the BOS is really important, and we’re trying to do that.
HBH: I’ve gotten emails over the last week from Cider Mill & the Miller Driscoll PTA sort of ‘positioning’ this year’s budget as a “first step” effort to restore things that have been cut in the past few downturn years—renewed protection of class size, updated textbooks and coursework, new AP classes, technology improvements, repairs, etc. Is that your take on it too?
BL: I think that’s a fair perspective. We’re doing that within the parameters of continuing to provide a quality education within the confines of what the town can afford. I think that one of the things the town will continue to see and has started to hear more of is our strategic plan.
I think you’ll see in this budget that everything we do is tying back to the strategic plan. So it’s not just [arbitrarily] “We want to do this, and we want to do that.” It’s all focused on what we think is best for the school district and what we think is best for the town.
HBH: Part of this process is that, at this point, the budget as presented to the BOF is still under review, and there’s potential that there will be reduced numbers from what you presented. What do you and the board feel is the most important in the budget to protect, as you face the BOF and the town vote?
BL: I think we put together a thoughtful budget. At this point it’s a budget that the town ought to seriously consider approving. The difference between our two percent budget [increase] and the 1.75 [percent budget increase] recommended by the BOF is, relative to a $74 million budget, a relatively small number. It’s $180, 231.
In some respects it’s a large number, and in some respects that’s a small number.
I think our First Selecman put it well in the public’s eye a week ago, when he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “It’s within the ballpark of the BOF’s guidance.” So I think it’s the right budget.
HBH: Can you comment about particular areas of interest to you that you want to see in the future? It’s sort of a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ in a way—technology or class size or…
BL: [Laughs] The concept of a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ was brought up, in a way, at one point last year, and I don’t see the road ahead of us as a ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ Now maybe it’s because I am by nature a ‘glass-is-half-full’ kind of guy? But I am thoroughly excited about the prospects and opportunities for education going forward. I’m all about increasing quality, and doing it within the parameters of what we have to work with. And that includes some budget variables that we control, and some that we don’t control.
When I look at technology, just as an example, I get very excited about trying to make sure that every child is given an opportunity to reach their potential. And I see curriculum mapping as a first step in that process. Making sure that we understand, and can clearly articulate and deliver, the appropriate curriculum to each child. And then having a way to effective measure that, so that we can monitor whether we’re losing a kid.
We’re over 4,000 students, so the possibility of losing a child exists, and we don’t ever want that to happen. Technology can help us with that. Technology can also help us provide advanced learning experiences that some of our most gifted children really need so that we don’t lose them. You look at the spectrum of kids, if you’ve got an incredibly bright kid and you’re not challenging that child, the risk of losing that child is as great. We want to make sure that we don’t do that.
It’s exciting to me when we look at SMARTboard, as an example, and wireless—I see them as enabling technologies. I don’t see them as the end game; I see them as vehicles to help us move to a future. I see bringing in laptops and students bringing in iPads or the Kindle Fire as a vehicle to blast our curriculum opportunities well beyond the walls of Wilton’s schools.
Because we have 4,000 students, we have some kids, due to unfortunate situations, can’t get to school. It doesn’t mean that they’re not able to learn. But we can help them learn. We can’t predict a snowstorm or a hurricane. But I know for a fact that because of some of the digital curriculum that we’ve been able to implement—the town may not even be aware of—kids were learning, they were studying during that snowstorm. That’s really exciting!
HBH: I hope that’s one of the stories that gets told at the Tech Expo 3.0 this Thursday. That, and things like what I experienced watching the students in my son’s 3rd grade class use technology—like the SMARTboard—to run the class themselves for two hours during last year’s Closing House. I was blown away—It was technology based, it was engaging, it was empowering. They were able to teach the parents on their own what they learned.
BL: A SMARTboard is not an end game. A SMARTboard is an enabling technology to move us toward the future. Curriculum development, curriculum mapping, curriculum enhancement, professional development and technology all go hand-in-hand. If you don’t have the professional development piece in play, you’re not focusing on your most valuable resource and asset—which is your head count: the people who teach your kids.
We need to make sure that we’re investing appropriately in them, so that they know how to leverage these technologies. One of the things that the district has started to do (and it’s really exciting) is really focus in on the concept of ‘train-the-trainer.’ They know which teachers are embracing these concepts the fastest. And they’re putting more attention and focus behind those individuals so that they can help bring the others along.
But what does that do? It helps bring everybody else along faster but it also helps control our costs because we’re not bringing in outsiders to do that. That’s something that everybody can embrace.
HBH: Moving on, there are so many challenges facing schools these days—cyberbulling, changes on the state level, broader trends in education with testing, evaluation of teacher performance, etc.—that are outside the budgetary controls. A lot of these are societal, and were things a school district didn’t have to deal with until now. How is Wilton handling the added burden of those newer challenges?
BL: I think it’s an evolutionary process. When a new ‘burden’ gets handed to us, it takes a little bit of time, and resources—and therefore budgetary strain—to absorb.
When we first took on responsibility for special education, I’m sure that was a tremendous adjustment—and it continues to be an adjustment for us, at some levels. It’s 10 percent of our students, it’s 20 percent of our budget. But I have to say, I think the district—relative to that and to surrounding towns—now does a very good job of not only providing for those students, but also doing so in a thoughtful way, relative to the needs of those students, the needs of the other 90 percent of the students, and the budgetary implications that it has.
Now when I talked about the pieces that we don’t control, it’s a finite number of items that we don’t control. And those truly are a challenge. We see that carry out in the budget: We don’t control the number of kids that show up on the first day of school. We currently invest about $17,000 per student in educating each child each year.
Well, when you have 30 extra students who have showed up beyond what you were expecting—that’s a half-a-million dollars right there. Now, that is a burden on the system. This past year it was a real burden. They were able to absorb the burden, but it’s a real challenge. They were able to absorb it because they were thoughtful and efficient in the way that they look at it.
Another challenge is energy cost. We have between 400-500,000 square foot of buildings. We have to heat them, we have to cool them, we have to have lights in them. As energy costs go up, we have variables of hundreds of thousands of dollars, again well beyond that $180,000. I think you’ll see we do a good job trying to minimize that.
HBH: Special Education spending is always a question that gets raised during budget discussion season.
BL: We have a good special education program, there’s no question. We as all Wiltonians should be proud of it. I don’t think, when I look at the numbers I’ve been presented, that our program is any larger or any smaller than any surrounding town. But I am incredibly proud of the way we serve the needs of the students and the families in that program, and therefore the way we operate within the district is something we should be proud of.
HBH: What’s the single biggest issue facing our school district?
BL: I come back to the fact that we have 4,000 students, and we have 600 employees. The law of averages says we have a little bit of everything. I think we’re managing all those ‘little bit of everythings’ pretty well. Things flare up and at times perhaps it can be seen by some that we can manage those better, and I think that we’re working on that.
I keep coming back to the speed of change, and adapting to that speed of change. It’s probably the biggest challenge. But I also think this budget realizes that, and focuses on that.
HBH: What is the best thing about our district, that makes it stand out?
BL: The collaboration of the community, the faculty, the students and the parents, to turn out really amazing kids. One of the greatest joys of being on the board of education is sitting at graduation, watching these amazing kids walk across the stage. Or going to a Wilton High School play and watching an incredible performance. Or an Acoustic Wilton performance or watching our band play.
Another terrific example, from a budgetary perspective, is girls’ ice hockey always gets attacked, because it’s expensive. So I went to a girl’s varsity ice hockey match and I encourage anybody in town who’s never been to one to go. It was incredible! It was a great game, great student athletes. I had no clue that our goalie was going on to the Coast Guard Academy. I believe the hockey program was part of that.
Everywhere you turn in our district there’s another jewel.
HBH: What would you like to see happen with the plans for Miller Driscoll?
BL: I would liket o see a thoughtful, comprehensive, town-wide discussion, that comes up with a good long-term solution that gets implemented.
HBH: Any preference, rebuild or renovate?
BL: I’ve thought a lot about that, and I have to say I’m not an architect and I’m not an engineer. So I don’t know. I look at the facility and I can see how challenging it is to teach within the confines of that footprint. It was never designed to do what it’s doing right now. As an individual, I have no clue how they would ever be able to fix that. The rooms aren’t square. There are nooks and crannies everywhere that we’re heating, we’re cooling. We’re not able to put storage into it. I see that as a challenge.
But then I turn around and I see the renovations at Cider Mill, at Middlebrook, at the high school, and they’re brilliant. So can some brilliant architect or engineer figure out how to do that with Miller Driscoll? I don’t know. Can they do it less expensively than building new? I don’t know, and that’s why I’m a big fan of collaboration and a big fan of putting a lot of good brains on a problem.
I think if it’s a thoughtful, open, collaborative discussion, without an end-game agenda, we will get a good solution. But I also believe it’s got to get implemented. We had a thoughtful discussion about our community center that never got implemented. So whatever it is, it’s got to get implemented.
HBH: Any final thoughts?
BL: This is a great town. It’s a great town. I’ve had coffees like this one with many, many people, with varying personal perspectives. Whether it’s political, financial—it all comes back to the fact of this being a great town. Sometimes we lose sight of that, and we let the heat of the moment cloud that. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to focus on getting better—because we are.
But, pertinent to your , we need to take a breath. Remember, it’s a great town, and we all live here because of that. And I believe that to my core.