EXCLUSIVE: 60 Minutes with Eric Williams

EXCLUSIVE: 60 Minutes with Eric Williams

Loudoun County School Superintendent Talks Budget, Vision.

Earlier this week, The Tribune’s editorial staff met with Loudoun County’s Superintendent of Public Schools (LCPS) Eric Williams for an hour-long conversation about the county’s public school system and his role as its staff leader.

LCPS is the third largest school division in Virginia, and enrolls more than 79,000 students in 89 facilities. Those includes 15 high schools, 15 middle schools, 57 elementary schools and three special purpose schools.

Student enrollment continues to rise at a steady pace, but demographics are changing quickly. Just over 50 percent of students are non-white, and the 20.3 percent captured in the segment designated as Asian (including Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian-identified students, among others), is the fastest growing population, according to current LCPS statistics.

With budget season in full swing, Williams reviewed his priorities in crafting the proposed FY 2018 budget that is being reviewed by the county School Board. He also commented on the more publicized items in the budget, other LCPS issues in the news, and his first two-and-a-half years on the job.

Joining Williams was Assistant Superintendent of Business and Financial Services Leigh Burden and Public Information Officer Wayde Byard.

What’s your style when it comes to presenting the proposed annual budget of LCPS?

WILLIAMS:  I would say that three budget principles reflect the style. One is the success mentality, two is strategic and three is being transparent. In terms of success mentality, it’s about how can we take our high performing division and take it to the next level. Rather than having a “woe is me” attitude toward financial limitations, it’s saying, in terms of available funds, how can we take that and continue to improve, instead of just having a “let’s just keep the ship afloat” attitude.

The second aspect is being strategic. This involves questions about the proposed budget reflecting priorities but also considering different ways to spend the same dollar in order to get a bigger bang for our buck. In this year’s proposed budget, like in the past two years, we’ve done reallocations. And it’s not saying the things we had been spending the money on aren’t worthwhile, it’s really a question of how might we spend it differently if we’re taking a step back.

The third part that I think has been appreciated by the school board, board of supervisors and the community, is being transparent and giving a lot of detail. The biggest example of that are staffing standards. Previously there was always a rationale for how we’re going to spend the money (and) this is how we will approach staffing schools. Now we have articulated staffing standards that say for every certain number of students at a particular school we’re going to provide this number and type of staff.  When we say we’ve got 3,000 more students, you can look and see how many counselors and others are generated by that number of additional students.

Recruitment and retention of bus drivers is highlighted in your budget.  Why is it such a problem?

WILLIAMS:  We have not been able to fill all of the vacancies. It’s not just the rate of pay, it’s also the number of hours. You might have a decent rate of pay, but if you’re only working four hours, that’s not going to be  as attractive a compensation package as working six hours a day.

We are reducing the number of bus driver positions, and people may say, “Hey wait, if you need more bus drivers, why are you reducing some?”  We do need more, but not as many as are budgeted so we’re reallocating some budgeted but unspent money to have a more attractive compensation package in order to fill those positions. Generally speaking, it’s not that our current scale is way below what other localities are offering. Other localities are struggling too.

Your budget presentation acknowledges disciplinary disparity in Loudoun’s schools.  Are there more problems among certain populations, or is there a disparity in how they are disciplined?  Or both?

WILLIAMS:  We have one of the lowest suspension rates across the state. In fact, the state has cited us as examples to other divisions. Now that being said, there are still disparities that exist in Loudoun County that reflect disparities throughout the state and throughout the nation.

It’s hard to reach a conclusion one way or the other but regardless of which of those situations it is or some combination thereof, we believe there are interventions such as restorative practices, and positive behavior intervention and support (PBIS) that can reduce the overall suspension rate for students regardless of any disparities that exist. Even if you can’t attribute it to one or the other, we still want to implement practices to try to address the overall situation.

Inclusive practices is one of your stated goals.  With that in mind, how did you react to the recent School Board vote on LGBTQ protections, and how has the national political mood affected the climate in Loudoun’s schools?

WILLIAMS:  Multiple school board members expressed interest in following this issue as it plays out in the judicial system. Obviously different school board members have different perspectives, but my sense is that the school board is in a wait and see mode.

School climate is incredibly important because when there’s a positive, safe, trusting environment with positive relationships among students, among teachers and between students and teachers, that serves as a foundation for being academically engaged — and, ultimately, for academic achievement.

I would say regardless of who a student is or what a potential bullying or discriminatory action is, we want to have a climate that is safe and supportive for all students.

Reflecting the nationwide tension, there have been situations in which inappropriate comments were made that don’t meet our expectations for how you treat another person in a respectful, positive way. We’re not saying every day has to be a kumbaya moment, but there are certain norms you have to meet in terms of how you interact.

The point isn’t that we need to protect one group of students as victims against inappropriate comments from one group of people with one set of political principles. It works across the political perspective. People can say inappropriate, ridiculous things even though they hold political viewpoints across the whole spectrum, so upholding these norms of civil interaction is really apolitical.

What’s your view on the siting and construction of new schools in developed areas of Loudoun where space is limited and traditional footprints won’t work?

WILLIAMS:  Even though the percentage model of growth has decreased, because we have such a large base population, the raw number remains very large — over 3,000 additional students yearly — and that trend will continue for years to come. Because of that, we need additional schools and we’re continuing to build at least one a year for the foreseeable future.

In terms of the construction of metro stations as a part of that process, there have been discussions of a possible new school design. We are very early in that process. I see our role as staff members making clear options available to the School Board, and then for the school board to communicate with the Board of Supervisors.

Important questions exist, such as can you have a multi-story building? If so, what are the implications going to be for instruction? What other ancillary services and opportunities are going to exist? Take, for instance, playing fields. If you have a school by the metro, is it going to have the same square footage for the building itself and acreage of fields? I would anticipate having a work session later this spring on the topic for the school board and county staff.

When it comes to effective budgeting, what’s a recent LCPS success story that you’re especially proud of?

WILLIAMS:  The most important point I would make is that what’s being proposed is a prioritized list of what’s needed to sustain our excellence and to build on it.

I would cite full day kindergarten as an example of that. In my first year here, we proposed a moderate, steady expansion. We need to have a sense of urgency on one hand, but on the other hand, it’s not just a matter of throwing a ton of money at the operating and construction budget. We’re building six classroom expansions to add space because it’s not just about using existing space, but we didn’t want to over-recommend school space that we wouldn’t need.

We’ve moved from 11 percent of kids being in full day kindergarten my first year here to a little over 30 percent last year, we’re a little over 50 percent this year. I’ve proposed being at 82 percent and the School Board is discussing if they’re going to fully fund that amount or look at something slightly less.

I cite that as a general example of steady, reasonable progress. And a part of that is constantly saying, what are we going to stop spending money on? We identified over $5 million in operating budget and a number of positions we could cut in order to make this a more reasonable request.

Issues of teenage depression, drug use, overdoses and suicide are the talk of the nation.  What new efforts are underway or planned to address these issues in Loudoun’s public schools?

WILLIAMS:  The proposed budget would include a significant additional emphasis on mental health, and it’s not so much as doing things differently as it is doing more of it. We already promote mental wellness and resiliency, and there are efforts to connect students and their families with services that exist in order to receive mental health treatment. We also want to provide social and emotional support.

What we’ve proposed is creating unified support teams for high school students that would include a variety of professionals. It’s a total of 25 additional positions — five psychologists, eight social workers, eight school counselors, two supervisors and two student assistant specialists. I give credit to Mary Kealy, the Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services, because she has identified funds within existing Pupil Services budget that would pay for this expansion.

Budget is only part of it. Staff support and protocols are also an important part, and in the past year there have been additional training opportunities for staff members. Pupil Services also does a series of speaking engagements, and our staff is speaking about suicide prevention at Broad Run High School on Feb. 2. We’ve got hundreds of people who are coming.

It’s also a matter of tapping into existing community resources. I’m thrilled that in the next two years all of our high school students will have the opportunity to see the production of A Will to Survive by the Same Sky Project. There’s also a middle school version that relates to themes of resilience and inclusivity. I had the opportunity to see it, and it’s powerful.

We explicitly want to leverage that peer support, so we have staff members within the Department of Pupil Services who pull students from every high school to come together and strategize on climate issues, because it’s one thing for adults to encourage help-seeking behavior; it’s another thing for students to believe in these situations you really need to talk to a professional.

How do you view your personal transparency when to comes to accessibility and accountability to Loudoun residents?

WILLIAMS:  I think that at a practical level, sharing information is important because it provides context and understanding for decisions. Take for example the budget, taking the time to say to people, here are the details about how we’re spending the money we say is needed for enrollment growth is going to end up benefiting kids because we’re more likely to receive the resources that we need because people have the information they need to make judgements.

Now, transparency is kind of like motherhood and apple pie, it’s hard to be against it in the abstract. The frustrating aspect of it is sometimes there are restrictions that might prevent one from sharing information, such as it being a personnel matter as an example. But at a practical level, being transparent and providing information can be incredibly beneficial.

Many people are not happy about the way LCPS has handled the ongoing matter related to Principal John Brewer of Dominion High School.  If you had to do it over, would you do anything differently?

WILLIAMS:  Any time a staff member is on leave, that can be very difficult for everybody involved — students, parents and colleagues, and we shared that acknowledgement with our recent statement.  I recognize that in my position as superintendent, I’m going to come under criticism at times. I just need to not take it personally while at the same time recognizing how difficult it is for everybody involved. So it’s important we handle the situation appropriately.

I won’t comment on individual situations, I will just say that generally speaking, I understand that even when we’re sharing the information we’re able to share, some people won’t perceive that it’s sufficient and I understand that.

What’s most important to you in doing the job of school superintendent?

WILLIAMS:  I would say a key aspect of a superintendent’s job is creating a shared vision. Yes, a superintendent needs to set forth ideas that can become an important part of a vision, but in order for a vision to be adopted by people it also needs to be adapted by people.

That vision relates to instructional matters and also to development of the budget. Trying to create a shared commitment to those three budget principles mentioned earlier, for example.

And it’s with a variety of stakeholders, not just the School Board. It’s with parents, business leaders, not for profits, staff members. But obviously a key part of the superintendent’s job is working with the School Board and giving it the opportunity to be a high impact governance team. By that I mean an effective superintendent doesn’t just come and ask a board to rubber stamp things, but gives board members the opportunity to have a major influence through policy, budget, strategic planning, and accountability measures within the strategic plan.

That relationship is a collaboration, I call it a team of 10. There’s the nine school board members and the superintendent. Now, school board members have different roles, collectively, and they’re my boss. But the ten member team is still a team approach.

Is there too much of a test-prep mentality in Loudoun’s schools?

WILLIAMS:  In saying we need to avoid a test-prep mentality, I still believe studying and test results are important. But it’s also a broader notion. We work with community members in setting forth our profile of a LCPS graduate, saying that our graduates will be knowledgeable, so they’ll know important content. They’ll also be effective collaborators, communicators, creators of solutions and contributors to the world.

We’re not just prepping students to do well on the test, but to help graduates make contributions to the world through careers, civic engagements and community service.

All of that are important aspects to the instructional vision. Another part is having a team of high-performing professionals. One of the big ideas of how we’re going to do that is stay focused on the type of graduate we want to create. To want to have professionals and cultivate them very strategically. And to have efficient and effective operations.

Of course you want efficient and effective operations, but the devil’s in the details to make that occur on a day-to-day basis. We want to be good stewards of taxpayer resources in terms of efficiency, but we also want results. I’ll cite transportation as an example. We’re not where we want to be in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, and so we’re not just going to accept that situation; we’re going to work to improve upon it.

The Loudoun NAACP has criticized the lack of diversity among LCPS teachers.  You recently created a position specifically focused on diversity in recruitment.  How is that going?

WILLIAMS:  It’s still early to see all the fruits of our most focused recruitment efforts this year, but what I would point to is just the fact that we have focused recruitment and part of that is to diversify the teaching workforce and having one that more closely reflects the demographics of our student population.

In terms of some of the steps that have been taken, we’ve expanded the number of historically black colleges that are visited in recruitment efforts, and having targeted recruitment events in particular areas. We had an event in Sterling schools where we brought in candidates who expressed particular interest in working at a diverse school, giving them a chance to visit the schools during the day so they can see if this is a place where they’d like to work.

High touch recruitment efforts are also part of this, so basically more candidate care for folks instead of being a bureaucratic entity during the recruitment process.  And all of our hiring managers — principals, assistant principals, folks at the division level — participate in implicit bias training.

All that was all done last fall, but we’re going to want to see how things play out between now and next fall with recruitment efforts, and the new budget does propose an additional position specifically for recruitment.

Besides progress on full day kindergarten, what else is a highlight of your first 30 months on the job?

WILLIAMS:  I would say the shift toward deeper learning and giving students the opportunity to engage in trying to solve authentic problems rather than just prepare for a test.  I’m pleased with our work on that. I’m also pleased with how staff has embraced the three budget principles because I think that’s important.

In terms of the strategic plan, it’s having a plan with three main goals and about 15 strategic actions underneath those including increasing salaries.

And on the salary side, we recognize there’s a lot of work still to be done, especially to attract and keep mid-range salaried teachers. But we’ve already made significant improvements in the teaching salary schedule.

How does it feel to be superintendent of Loudoun County public schools?

WILLIAMS:  I absolutely love it, because even though it’s a high-performing school division, people don’t want to rest on their laurels. They constantly have an attitude of “let’s do an even better job”.

Ryan Butler and Tom Julia of The Tribune also participated in the interview of Superintendent Williams.