Patrik Williams excited about leading district despite challenge of state budget cuts

Patrik Williams is starting his first school year as superintendent of the Smyrna School District on a positive note after facing a dilemma this summer.

Williams was promoted from assistant superintendent by the Smyrna Board of Education after Debbie Wicks announced she was retiring. Wicks served for 19 years as superintendent and 40 years total in the district.

After Williams started his new job in June, he and the district were immediately dealt a blow when the Delaware legislature cut about $1 million in funding from Smyrna schools as part of budget cuts affecting all school districts. The preliminary total is $1,014,390 with the final amount depending on the Sept. 30 enrollment count which the state uses to determine funding for each district.

That’s a cut of about 1.8 percent of state funds, said District Finance Director Jerry Gallagher. The district receives about $53.3 million in state funds and has a total operating budget of about $64.8 million with funds from local property taxes and the federal government, he said.

However, Williams is looking on the bright side after he and the other administrators came up with a plan to handle the cuts.

“We’re very fortunate we did not have to cut any staff,” said Williams.

The biggest change was converting the summer school program, the Summer School Academy, to an online-only program instead of a classroom program.

“Students could access the academy from home and in our computer lab at Smyrna High School. That helped us save well over $200,000,” Williams said.

Another change because of the state budget cuts will be when teacher professional development programs occur.

“We’re going to have teacher professional development when classes aren’t in session, limiting the substitute teacher pay that’s needed,” said Williams. “Rather than pulling a teacher out of class and bringing in a substitute, we’re going to be doing more professional development as part of staff meetings and inservice days when classes aren’t in session. We’re also going to have curriculum coaches going into the classroom to work with teachers.”

That change will result in about $75,000 in savings that had been designated to pay for substitute teachers.

The largest savings for the district are from vacant positions that won’t be filled.

Three administrative positions that the district qualifies for according to the enrollment count will not be filled.

“There’s a formula that gives the district a cash equivalency for those unfilled positions. The state credits us a dollar amount,” Williams said. “That’s been going on for years because as a district we’ve taken a conservative approach.”

Several other unfilled positions will also remain vacant, and the district will receive credits from the state for those as well.

Gallagher said in previous years, the state would only give the districts credit for the unfilled administrative positions, but this year the other staffing positions will also result in credits from the state.

Those unfilled positions include four teachers, two secretaries, and one custodian.

The total saved from all the unfilled positions will amount to about $436,000, Gallagher said.

Good news

Despite the state budget cuts, Williams said the district has plenty of positives to talk about.

“One of the first things I did as superintendent was participate in the dedication ceremony for the renovated Thomas D. Clayton Building,” said Williams. “We’re very proud of that building.”

District residents approved the renovations of the facility on Monrovia Avenue in the 2014 referendum, and the project was finished in June. The building houses the offices for the special services, transportation and maintenance departments.

Williams is also excited about the installation of a new lighting system in the Smyrna High School auditorium which is nearly complete.

“It’s phenomenal,” he said. “All the lighting including the stage lighting will all be upgraded with state-of-the-art LED lighting.”

The old lights were the original ones installed when the school was built in 1970.

“It’s fantastic it lasted so long, but we couldn’t make any modifications with parts that were available. Nothing was compatible, but now we’re going to have a completely new system,” he said. “Hopefully phase two will be a new sound system, but that depends on our financial situation. It’s tentatively slated for next summer, with all new wiring, speakers and microphones – again, depending on the budget.”

A major curriculum initiative in the district this year is the new “Bridges” math curriculum for the elementary grades.

“It’s aligned with Common Core. We’re rolling that out, and we’ll have math specialists working with teachers on that,” said Williams.

Born and raised in Delaware

Before being promoted to superintendent, Williams served as assistant superintendent for seven years with Debbie Wicks.

Wicks said Williams “has an innate ability to promote harmony and teamwork yet he has the confidence to face tough leadership challenges with staff, students, and parents.”

“He is as prepared as anyone could be for this challenging role,” said Wicks. “He has a ‘we can do it’ attitude and a strong work ethic.”

He also served as principal of Smyrna Middle School for five years and as associate principal at Smyrna High School for one year.

He came to the Smyrna School District after 19 years in the Capital School District, the first 14 as an English teacher followed by five years as associate principal at Dover High School.

“I’m excited about this opportunity,” said Williams. “As assistant superintendent, I’ve enjoyed working with community and faculty in all eight of our schools.”

However, he said he was surprised about the timing of his promotion.

“When Mrs. Wicks said she was planning to retire, I took a big gulp. Like most people, I didn’t think about Mrs. Wicks retiring because she loves the school district and the students so much. She’s been such a blessing to our community. After the initial shock, I realized she has created a legacy that will last well after she’s no longer superintendent. Our mission, our core values, the construction program that has updated our buildings and added new schools with first-class facilities for our growing number of students – that’s her legacy.”

Williams said he plans to continue that legacy, despite the budget cuts.

“It’s always a challenge. We want to do so many things for the district but we are also fiscally conservative and you have to do a balancing act,” he said. “Being superintendent is not about making decisions in isolation. I’m consulting with the assistant superintendent, curriculum director, financial director, Child Nutrition director, custodians, principals and the Board of Education.”

One of the constant concerns is keeping up with the growth in student enrollment.

“We are working with towns and counties to monitor building permits,” said Williams. “We didn’t lose enrollment during the recession and now it’s picking back up.”

Keeping up with technology is another challenge, he said.

“We all remember the days of card catalogs in the library. Now we have desktop computers, tablets, a new generation of smart phones,” he said.

That’s a far cry from when he was growing up on a farm outside of Felton.

“If I wasn’t in school, I was on a tractor or in a greenhouse,” Williams said. “I spent my time studying, playing sports and farming. I played baseball in school. I’m a Phillies fan.”

He graduated in 1981 from Lake Forest High School, earned his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and his master’s degree at Wilmington University in instructional leadership.

He and his wife Melissa have one daughter, Laura, who attends Smyrna High School.

He said he wants to assure the community that although he’s a new superintendent, he plans to carry on with the traditions that have built the Smyrna School District.

“Just because we’re changing superintendents, there won’t be any change in our core values and the traditions we know and love,” Williams said. “Our main goals are to make sure children are safe and well educated.”