Ridgefield has a permanent superintendent once again.
Dr. William Collins — former superintendent of Newington Public Schools — was hired Tuesday, Dec. 18. He will take over the job from Interim Superintendent Dr. JeanAnn Paddyfote on Feb. 19, 2019.
A self-professed local history enthusiast, Collins started working as a bus driver back in his teen years.
“I drove a school bus and I drove a tour bus to put myself through college,” Collins, 56, told The Press during an interview Monday, Dec. 17.
He kept his license over the years, and it ended up coming in handy.
“Newington owns its own fleet, so before a snow day I would actually take a bus out and check the roads,” he said with a chuckle.
The Ridgefield Board of Education voted to appoint Collins as superintendent of Ridgefield Public Schools during a special meeting Tuesday night.
He is coming out of retirement to take the job, which means the schools will not have to hire a second interim superintendent to finish out the 2018-19 school year.
Prior to coming to Ridgefield, Collins served as the Newington district superintendent from July 2009 to August 2018.
Before that role, he served as a principal at Newington High School from 2004 to 2009, and as principal of Naugatuck High School from 2001 to 2004.
He also taught as an assistant professor in the Central Connecticut State University graduate business program from 1997 to 2005.
From 1987 to 1997, Collins worked as a classroom teacher, first at Springfield High School in Springfield, Vt., and then in Windham Public Schools in Willimantic.
He beat out nine other candidates to earn the top job in Ridgefield’s education system.
During an hour-long interview with The Press, Collins spoke candidly about the problems facing the district. Chief among them are concerns about the integrity of the highest-paid employee in town after the previous permanent superintendent, Dr. Karen Baldwin, resigned amid allegations that she plagiarized portions of a letter sent home to parents following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“I can’t do anything about the past, so all I can do is moving forward, listen to people ” Collins said. “I think the key here is going to be getting people to understand they have a venue to either voice concerns or just vent.”
Under his administration, he plans to set up regular meetings at each of the schools for parents and members of the public to show up and talk about what issues concern them.
“You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what it is,” Collins said.
He acknowledged the challenge of combating misinformation on Facebook.
“I’m certainly not going to get a Facebook account and go on Facebook and start talking to people — that I can’t do,” Collins said.
While he was the superintendent of Newington, Collins hosted a monthly talk show produced by students and that aired on local television. The program took live calls and gave Collins an opportunity to answer questions.
He suggested he might revive the program at Ridgefield High School, which has a studio.
“When I spoke to people in Newington who worked with Dr. Collins, integrity was one of those words that every single one brought up,” said board Chairwoman Margaret Stamatis.
“I don’t lie, I’m a straight shooter,” Collins added.
While parents and other members of the community who were surveyed as part of the superintendent search said that integrity is key in a candidate, a number also reportedly brought up transparency around the issue of later school start times.
On Dec. 10, the board voted to rescind its previous vote to start schools later beginning with the 2019-20 school year.
While the vote effectively leaves start times at status quo for the foreseeable future, several parents have still raised concerns about students getting less sleep than they need.
Collins signaled some support for a later start.
“I think it has to be done in a way that’s not as controversial, that doesn’t divide the community,” said Collins. “But if it’s the right thing for kids, then it’s really something you’ve got to figure out. You really shouldn’t be allowing transportation to be driving — no pun intended — the educational program.”
Stamatis said that start times was never intended to be a “magic pill” to solve the problem of student sleep.
She said the board plans to partner with Collins’ administration to look for other ways to combat inadequate sleep — including blue light, sleep hygiene, and screen time.
As Collins will be taking over as superintendent after Paddyfote presents the annual school budget to the board on Jan. 14, he’ll essentially inherit the budget process from her.
That includes the state’s perpetual financial woes.
“You’re at the state’s mercy with what they’re going to give you, so you have to be prepared for that,” Collins said.
He said he “tends to like to get a year ahead” with expenditures, so that spending on school equipment occurs later in the year. So if a school music department needs new keyboards, the superintendent’s office will hold off on ordering them until the end of the year — “so if something happens, you’ll have a little breathing room,” Collins said.
In the past, Collins held meetings in the Newington senior center to try to explain the budget to older residents who no longer have children in the school district, and therefore might balk at the high cost of a school budget.
“People with information usually make better choices,” he said.
“As Rudy always says, education is the economic engine of the town,” added Stamatis.
“[But] there are people living on fixed incomes and we have to be fiscally responsible,” she said.
When Collins comes on, he’ll inherit a high-performing district with an annual budget of $95 million for the 2018-19 school year. But despite high achievement, Ridgefield spends less than any other district in its District Reference Group (DRG) — the economic classification used by the state to determine funding.
Ridgefield spends $17,961 per student, compared to the state average of $16,564 per student. Wilton, the next-highest spender in Ridgefield’s DRG spends $19,865 per student.
“A high-performing district only stays a high-performing district intentionally,” said Collins.
He said he will publish an annual improvement plan for each individual school as part of that process.
“I want to make sure that the results we’re getting are on purpose. If they’re not as good, and we predicted that, then OK, the process is working. That’s the only way you stay high performing.”
“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and start working with people.”