Wilbert “Will” Laird is a newcomer to Sussex County.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pa., Laird attended Point Park College (business/math) and George Washington University (operations research) en route a 35-year career with the federal government.
He worked in Washington, D.C., as a technology manager for various agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
At the same time, he served as a part-time instructor at a number of Maryland community colleges, and continued his own postgraduate studies.
Laird bought a place in Lewes 15 years ago. He and his wife, Rose, spent vacation time at the beach until 2001, when the Lairds made a permanent move to Long Neck.
Laird fully retired in 2003, but apparently, he’s not ready to sit on the porch and rock just yet.
He is challenging incumbent Indian River School District (IRSD) School Board Member Nina Lou Bunting for the District 3 seat.
He readily admitted he didn’t know too many locals yet, but according to Laird, a fresh look is just what the School Board could use most.
“These (School Board members) are community oriented folk,” he said. “I haven’t spent much time in the area, so I’m not presenting myself to the public as having, necessarily, the individual community perspective.
“I’m saying I’ve got a national perspective,” Laird stated. “I certainly know what the federal government expects, and I certainly know, from spending years and years and years evaluating contractors to do jobs, I know what the marketplace expects.
“So, I’m coming to the electorate saying I understand what the needs are out there,” he said.
“The board members who are intimately familiar with the local perspective need to have another view,” Laird concluded. “They need to have someone there that says, ‘Look, here’s what is needed out in the world, and if we want to make sure our students are competing with students in Baltimore — or even across the line here, in Cape Henlopen — these are the things we need to look at, and these are the priorities we need to set.”
Laird lives on the northern borders of the IRSD, near the Cape Henlopen district line. He noted the rapid influx of new families in that part of the county. “We’re competing heads up with Cape Henlopen, in terms of appeal to the parents,” he said.
According to Laird, a few changes might make IRSD the more attractive offering.
He said he’d recently helped his daughter and son-in-law’s family make a move from Arizona to Idaho. They have children of their own (as does his son’s family), and Laird said finding a school system they liked was an important factor.
“My task was to sit down and look at the information on the school systems where they wanted to relocate,” he said. “I spent a week going through everything I could find.
“Being a federal employee, I understand the Web site business (he said that had been an integral part of his job at the Federal Aviation Administration), so I went in and started scrolling around,” Laird recalled.
Assisted by the information he was able to find, Laird’s daughter and company were eventually able to make an informed decision. However, he said that would have been much more difficult here.
Compared with the information he was able to find in the Boise area, Laird said Cape Henlopen fared quite favorably — but the IRSD did not.
“The thing that absolutely appalled me was the lack of information coming out of the School Board,” he said.
While some information is available on www.irsd.net, and Laird applauded the recent decision to post minutes from the monthly meetings online, he said there just wasn’t much out there.
“You scan, you do searches on all the local district (Web) pages, but there aren’t any statements,” he said. “Other than a few photo op articles, the only in-depth reporting I’ve seen is on some of the problems they’re having with building.”
He suggested there should be some kind of recap on the board’s private (executive) deliberations as well — what issues were considered, what rationale the board members used to make their decisions.
Even at the public meetings, he said it was very difficult to hear what was going on — the sound system never worked. Presentations were often for the board’s benefit, rather than the public’s, and again, there was no information passed out for the audience, other than “the same old saw you get off the Web site,” according to Laird.
And the presentations were done on a “very cosmetic level,” he said.
Laird noted the presentation of statistics as an example — one of his areas of experience.
“My profession is statistician,” he said, noting advanced degrees in econometrics (the math of economics) and statistics.
“So I understand statistics, and I know what you can do with statistics,” he said. “One of the things that you can use to your advantage is you can talk about percentages.
“When the Superintendent (Lois Hobbs) is up there talking about, well, we had a five or eight or 10 or 12 percent increase in achievement, that doesn’t tell me a thing,” he said. “All that says is — what, it went from 23 percent to 35 percent?
“How is that relative to the real test, which is what the federal government requires, what the state requires — and most importantly, what the students require,” Laird asked.
As Laird pointed out, part of his career in the federal government had involved recruiting and evaluating people for positions in the programs he was involved with.
In addition, he’d spent 15 years in teaching graduate and undergraduate level courses for community colleges and the University of Maryland. His daughter is an instructor at a community college, and his wife is a retired community college professor, he noted.
“I know what’s expected of students coming out of the public education system,” Laird said. “Students need to be ready, when they go to higher education or when they go to the job — and I don’t get the sense that that’s where the School Board is focused.
“Speaking only in terms of the presentations I’ve heard, and the lack of information that comes out of the School Board, it seems the focus is basically on, ‘What do we need to meet the standard,’” he said. “They should be asking what they need to do to prepare the students to meet the challenge.”
He recounted examples from everyday life — a staff member at the auto shop expressing frustration with the computer database, and his wife reporting a similar situation at the local health spa.
High school graduates with the proper training should be well equipped to compete for those jobs, he suggested — or, to advance through military ranks, or to more quickly earn their college degrees.
“And it’s not training students for the computer — it’s training students to integrate that technology into any line of study they choose to take,” he said. “That piece of equipment has to be part of that training program.”
Laird said it wasn’t essential to have a computer in every classroom, but a computer lab at every school was a must. “Wired to the Internet,” he added. “Certainly, monitored, so things don’t run amok, but good, confident network folks can put in those kinds of locks and prevent inappropriate uses.”
He said that change in strategy would need to come through the budget process – another area he considered overly shielded from the public eye.
He didn’t blame the lack of information on any malicious intent. “The board members’ perspective is, they have to get a job done, and they have to make a decision,” he said – but they didn’t do a very good job of explaining their deliberations to the public.
Laird went on to describe his role in setting up management structures for the FAA. He was based in Washington, D.C., but coordinated with software engineers and developers all over the country, he said.
They handled payroll, personnel and accounting systems — alongside countless other tasks — for the federal Department of Transportation.
“That required a view of process and timing and budget,” he pointed out. “What it required us to do was structure how we accomplish the daily tasks, on a tactical level, and then how we meet the strategic goals that we set out for ourselves.”
According to Laird, School Board members sometimes seemed concerned about day-to-day matters, and not concerned enough about overview. He used recent discussions about the 2005-2006 calendar as an example.
“We spent the better part of 45 minutes talking about a schedule — I mean, come on,” he said. “Worrying about whether we’re going to have a school day on Jan. 2 is not something that a board — that’s like the board of a company worrying about whether they’re processing travel vouchers.
“It’s important, but that’s a technical decision,” he said. Laird agreed it was something that needed to be dealt with, but noted a very brief report, and few questions, on the district’s multimillion-dollar construction projects that same night.
Finally, Laird brought up accountability.
“If for no other reason, I’m running because so few people on the School Board are ever challenged,” he said. “If nobody is going to challenge the incumbents, then the board feels it’s doing a wonderful job, and they just continue along the same lines.”
According to Laird, “Things need to change.”