School Districts and Shared Services
Reducing Costs and Improving Quality
by William L. Librera
Commissioner, Department of Education
Efficiency is on the minds of many public officials. In Polk County, Iowa, officials are discussing sharing everything from road salt
to office paper. The governing bodies in Bend and Deschutes counties in Oregon voted to encourage their two governments to find ways to consolidate services.
Here, in New Jersey, as the public debate continues over the pros and cons of a Constitutional Convention to address the issue of rising property taxes, the idea of sharing services to save costs is not new. Sharing services is one way for school districts to reduce costs and, in some cases, improve quality.
The New Jersey Department of Education and school districts engage in numerous approaches to shared purchasing and shared delivery of services. Through local educational services commissions, coordinated on a county-wide basis, many districts share transportation, child study team services, deliver special education services, purchase natural gas and oil and buy copying equipment and other office materials. Individual school districts share the services of teachers, administrators and all types of tangible and intangible products.
In New Jersey, each county has a County Superintendent of Schools. The counties are organized, through the Department of Education, into three regional areas: north, south and central. The offices of the County Superintendent of Schools and the Department of Education Regional Assistant Commissioners actively encourage shared services. Focus on shared services and shared purchasing is a component of the Department of Education’s strategic plan. This emphasis on shared services results from the findings contained in the County and Regional Office Study presented to Commissioner William Librera on September 18, 2002. The study concludes that “the economy of scale of ‘brokering’ services to larger number of districts would be beneficial.” At the county and regional level, the Department of Education has redoubled its efforts to enhance access to shared services and cooperative purchasing and to provide support and technical assistance as needed by the school districts. A major unit of the department’s three regional offices is shared services. County Superintendents respond to developing shared services arrangements in many ways.
They disseminate information about sharing services in one-on-one meetings with districts, at county roundtables, and through formal community presentations.
When a County Superintendent hears of a business vacancy in a small school district, conversations take place to encourage filling the position on a shared basis.
In Camden County, emphasis has been placed on shared curriculum supervisors.
In Cape May and Atlantic counties, there has been an active and collaborative effort to identify districts that could be good candidates for consolidation or shared services.
In Bergen County, the county superintendent has provided feedback to districts about the format and requirements for consolidation feasibility studies.
In Mercer County, an inter-district program allows for cooperative purchasing for supplies, insurance and energy. There is also an active collaboration between school district and township to provide road repair (such as for school driveways) and snow plowing.
At the state level, various programs exist to assist with shared purchasing and similar initiatives:
The Department of Community Affairs SHARE program (formerly REAP) encourages partnerships between municipalities and school districts, providing support to help them consider and develop new shared services.
In response to a law enacted in 2002, the New Jersey Department of Education hosts a website that facilitates the sharing of textbooks at http://education.state.nj.us/textbook.
Under the Regional Cooperative Pricing Systems, two or more registered pricing systems and their participating contracting units may agree to join together for provision and performance of goods and services, including energy purchase. N.J.A.C. 5:34, et seq.
Under the State Cooperative Purchasing program, certain commodities purchased under state contract may be purchased by school districts at more favorable pricing. The great benefit here is flexibility: school districts can search out the best “deal.” While the “State list” often provides the best price, depending upon local economics, shipping costs or the unique qualities of the orders to be placed, sometimes the school district can obtain its best price through the bidding process. State cooperative purchasing does provide additional opportunities for potential savings.
Regional Educational Services Commissions, providing transportation and special education services, County Vocational/Technical Schools, Audio Visual Associations are examples of currently existing regional services similar in concept to shared services. In some counties, these agencies provide many services, in others fewer services, but all offer opportunities for efficiency.
Many districts have been involved in shared services arrangements, whether formal or informal, for years. These arrangements include large and small school districts, county offices of the Department of Education, municipalities, as well as non-profit agencies and independent authorities. Examples of local initiatives in shared services and shared purchasing between municipalities and school districts include:
• Purchase, storage and dispensing of gas, diesel fuel, and rock salt
• Road, parking lot, sidewalk repair
• Office repair/construction and purchasing of office furnishings
• Use and maintenance of athletic fields and lawn maintenance
• Electrical, plumbing, custodial and computer technician services
• Safe Town/Safe Schools and
• Vehicles and vehicle maintenance
• Website design and maintenance
• Shared administrative office space
• Snow removal
• Energy conservation
• Cable and telephone service
• Long range facility planning
• Recycling old computers, monitors and batteries
• Recreational programs
• Before and after school programs
These arrangements are in addition to those utilized among school districts such as sharing staff, shared after school programs, shared food services, shared co-curricular and sports programs, shared human resources services, shared curriculum coordination, shared technology, shared special education services, shared transportation, etc.
Our experience in shared services over so many years has taught us some things. Most are obvious. First, options are preferable to mandates, and districts need to have as many options available as will permit them to operate efficiently. Second, bigger is not always better. There are some very small districts that are extremely economically efficient. Those districts take advantage of shared service and similar opportunities to the extent possible. Third, cooperation, communication and flexibility are key components.
To be sure there are cases in which tradition or failure to take advantage of existing regulations and statutes authorizing sharing have prevented all that could be done to promote efficiency to be realized. The Department of Education responds to these instances on an individual and as needed basis and aggressively seeks increased efforts in this area. Technical support from the County office is available to assist districts in exploring, implementing and utilizing shared services effectively.
Moving forward, we, at the Department, are interested in your ideas for sharing services. To enhance educational outcomes for the public school students in New Jersey, all of us must be active partners.
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