School districts in New Jersey have been forced to adjust to a countless number of changes over the last year in face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But, in the months before the outbreak, officials from two school districts in the Garden State made the decision make changes to share resources and put more taxpayer dollars toward students.
Since the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, a shared services relationship has evolved between the Union Township and Franklin Township public school districts in Hunterdon County. The school districts are in their second school year sharing a superintendent, business administrator and director of special services, and this past school year have expanded these services to implement a shared child study team and a shared supervisor curriculum.
The people in these positions split their time between the Franklin Township School and Union Township Middle School and Elementary School. Approximately 300 students attend Franklin Township, and 400 attend the public schools in Union Township.
Nicholas Diaz, superintendent of both districts, said the shared services represent “a good model of what’s possible” in other school districts across the New Jersey — not least because of the financial benefits they produce.
“Obviously there’s a cost savings. We take everyone’s salary and divide it by two,” Diaz said. “So there’s a major savings there, and the benefit with that is that money can be directly rerouted to our students, which is always our goal: keep our programs, expand some of our programs … and be able to offer a great educational experience for our students by sharing.”
Beyond the financial advantages, the proximity of the two school districts to one another makes for staff and leaders to travel between buildings.
“For myself, there’s oftentimes emergent needs that pop up, so it’s a nice, quick ride over to the other school if I need to get to one district or another so I can go in and help out where needed,” Laura Marchese, supervisor of special services for both districts, said. “All the staff know that all of us are available really at any time, so just because I might be at Union doesn’t mean a Franklin staff member can’t contact us at Union or vice versa.”
“You go where the need is, and by the end of the week, you just try to make sure you’re balanced at both schools,” Kerry Foote, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for both districts, added. “So I go between the three schools as much as I can — it might be heavier in one district based off of what the teachers need — but for the most part it always ends up being 50/50.”
From “the curriculum angle,” the greatest benefit offered by the shared services positions is the increased collaboration between the two districts, according to Foote.
“When you’re a small district, you can feel like you’re on island,” Foote said. “So some of the things that we’ve done is we’ve merged our professional development, we’ve aligned our days, (and) we have provided (professional development) academies for both districts, where teachers have taught other teachers in either school different strategies or instructional practices they’ve used.”
Splitting her time between the districts has also allowed them to work towards “getting on the same page” in terms of academic studies offered to students, Foote added.
“Right now we are on the same page with math, and as we look forward to different curriculums that need to be updated, we’re looking on collaborating with teachers in both districts so that we can align with one another,” Foote explained.
Speaking as the supervisor of special services for each district, Marchese said her department is “definitely more efficient” in terms of servicing children with special needs in both districts.
“One of the biggest things we’ve been able to do is … develop special programming for our special needs students,” Marchese said. “Children that have more of a severe need, that are a little bit more disabled, we’ve been able to develop programs in each of our school districts.”
These students can utilize the special needs programs offered by each district, specifically Franklin Township’s classes for multiple disabilities and Union Township’s classes for learning language disabilities.
“It helps keep the students with greater needs local, and with their general education peers, instead of having to send them out to costly out-of-district placement,” Marchese explained.
The districts have extended its school year programs for children with disabilities that need extra programming in summertime.
“In the past, each district housed its own extended school year program,” Marchese said. “This past year, and for future years, we will house it in one spot. So we’re just bringing all the students over to one school and having these programs at one school.”
Discussions to implement shared services positions between the school districts first began in 2018, a year after Diaz became the superintendent for the Union Township School District.
“Franklin had an interim superintendent, and they’re very close in proximity, so our presidents just started the conversation to see if there was any mutual interest in doing a shared agreement,” Diaz said. “So it started slowly just with conversations, and then we formed a committee with both districts to discuss the potential benefits. And then from there it quickly evolved to a shared service — it was actually a very smooth, easy process. Even the county was very helpful.”
Cyrus Cama, president of the Franklin Township Board of Education, said he and other board members had been hoping to launch a shared services program several years prior to 2018 — but not necessarily with Union Township.
“Over the years, this was a topic of discussion frequently, almost every year with the Board, and multiple Boards … and at the time it was going to be with another district that wasn’t as close by to Franklin proximity-wise,” Cama said. “And my feeling at the time in 2012 is that if we in Franklin Township were going to share services with a superintendent, it would make sense to do something with Union, which is right next door to us.”
Franklin and Union townships have also long coordinated their recreation programs.
And, from the perspective of both boards of education, Diaz seemed to be the leader that could oversee both districts and unite them indefinitely.
“We really looked to say, ‘Who’s the person who is really going to move the needle in our district from where we are today, which is a good school, to a much better school, if not a great school?’” Lou Palma, president for the Union Township Board of Education, said.
“We just needed the right person and the right Board members to come together and kick this off. And the timing was right,” Cama added.
According to Diaz, over the course of the year and a half since the program has been implemented, no employee has been terminated as a result of the shared services. Instead, positions have been restructured as other employees have either retired or resigned.
Despite the fact that some employees are dividing their time between two different school districts, few problems or obstacles have arisen as a result of the shared services.
“I haven’t gotten any emails or complaints from the community at all about, ‘Hey, why is this person not spending more time here? Why are they splitting time with Franklin?’” Palma said. “You’d think you’d get a little bit of something, a little bit of noise from the community when there’s a change, but they’ve handled it so well.”
“Everything is working seamlessly between both districts, from a board perspective,” Cama echoed.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, both Franklin and Union Township have implemented hybrid learning schedules. But, the unprecedented changes created by the epidemic have not jeopardized the nascent shared services system or made employees’ lives more difficult, according to Diaz and Palma.
“The influx of technology, it makes things like meetings way easier for us than before, especially some of the committee meetings between both boards of education and some of our professional development,” Diaz said. “We don’t have to waste time trying to figure out how to get people to drive from one place to another. We are close in proximity, but we can save time just by opening a laptop and being able to have conversations.”
“Knowing you’ve got these highly capable individuals who are just doing so much for the schools they’re supporting … it made life for the board a lot easier,” Palma said. “To say, ‘Hey, we know that they’ve got it handled, how do we focus on these crazy other things that are popping up that we’ve never had to think about as a board of ed before?’”
The greatest challenge presented by the shared services program has not been its execution, but its communication with the public, Diaz added.
“The biggest piece is for both communities to get used to change … And that just took communication, meeting us — a lot of in-person meetings before COVID to see us, meet us, build those relationships with the community members … and see we’re real human beings,” Diaz said.
The success of the shared services has encouraged its continued expansion throughout the districts, specifically in terms of programs. This year, Union Township integrated its gifted and talented program with Franklin Township. Union will also soon merge its junior academy program with Franklin.
Diaz said he is open to creating more shared services positions “if there’s a need.”
“We look at it that way first,” Diaz said. “If there’s a need, then yes, we’ll look outside the box on how to have one person do both districts.”
In the meantime, he expressed his hope that other school districts in the Garden State may consider the benefits of following in his districts’ lead, crediting the accomplishments of the shared services system to the creativity and willingness of the Boards of Education.
“A lot of it happened because both boards were open to conversation,” Diaz said. “Sometimes boards of education maybe are afraid to think outside of the box, but both of these boards are so innovative and progressive and open to conversations like this that it allows for when opportunities arise, to take advantage of them.”
In speaking on behalf of one of these boards, Palma instead attributed the seamless implementation of the shared services to Diaz and the other leadership “at the top.”
“You have to have people that are open-minded and willing to change,” Palma said. “They’re willing to push the envelope and maybe have an unpopular opinion and put it out there.”
But he also agreed that if other districts across the state are looking to introduce similar changes, it all starts with a conversation.
“It’s OK if, from a district perspective or from a leadership perspective, you really have to focus on certain things that are really just for your school. That’s fine, because that’s really just your priority as a Board or as a school district,” he added. “But if you have those opportunities to have those conversations and think a little bit more critically about what you’re offering to the community, it really does open a ton of doors.”
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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].