tri district unification
PHOTO: (left to right, seated): Nina Flannery, Rosemary Ryan, Saranne Weimer (left to right, standing): Lenore Kingsmore, Rosemary Schutz, Janet Walling, Dr. Susan Compton, Kathy Winecoff, Daniel Loughran.

HIGHLANDS, NJ - Dr. Susan Compton, Superintendent of the Tri-District Schools, presented the preliminary strategic plans of the Atlantic Highlands Elementary (AHES), Highlands Elementary (HES), and Henry Hudson Regional Schools (HHRS) at the NJ School Boards Convention in Atlantic City on October 28th. Presenting along with her were Kathy Winecoff, Field Service Representative, NJ School Boards Association; Daniel Loughran, Tri-District Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction; Nina Flannery, Chair, HES Board of Education; Rosemary Ryan, Chair, HHRS Board of Education; Saranne Weimer, Chair, AHES Board of Education; Janet Walling, AHES Principal; Rosemary Schutz, HES Principal; and Lenore Kingsmore, HHRS Principal.

According to Ms. Winecoff, “While each school worked on its own strategic plan, this is the first time in history that three separate school districts collaborated on a shared, overarching plan. And the best part about this ‘Tri-District Strategic Plan’ is that it supports the goal of regionalizing but also works effectively even if regionalization does not come to fruition.” Winecoff pointed out that while sharing services, such as the position of superintendent, is cost effective, there are certain costs to these districts that comes as a result of operating independently. For example, the superintendent must answer to three boards of education consisting of 25 members. “Can you imagine how much more efficiently the superintendent could work if she interacted with a single board and one, three-school district?” Winecoff asked.

This was the first time the tri-district had presented their unique strategic plans to an audience and the response was extraordinary. Attendees were clearly impressed with these three separate school boards and how they worked together to find opportunities to share services and optimize their budgets - which means better learning potential for students.

But getting to this point was no easy feat. The whole process began back in 2013 with Strategic Planning Council meetings and input from community members at each school. These meetings included key stakeholders, such as educators, administrators, students and parents, and each of the three schools’ plans produced similar goals: to share services where possible to reduce expense; to advance student achievement (particularly in areas of STEM); to create and explore more opportunities for students and their families from both Atlantic Highlands and Highlands to interact more; and to enhance efforts to share more information about all three schools. Once these stakeholders came together from the three districts for the Tri-District Strategic Planning Council meeting in November of 2014, they were already familiar with the process, and Tri-District goals were easily identified, especially the goal of becoming a single district.

Although a final decision on regionalization has yet to be made, the leadership team is continually looking for ways to meet Tri-District goals, regardless of the regionalization outcome. Dr. Compton stated, “The Tri-District schools have done an excellent job of finding opportunities to share services: currently we share a superintendent, a curriculum director, a part-time public relations/community coordinator, a special services director, and two of the schools share a business administrator.  We have established a Tri-District Board of Education (BOE) subcommittee that has helped us work in a more unified fashion across the three BOE’s; we have improved our PreK-12 curriculum scope and sequence (with an emphasis on literacy); and we have made significant strides in changing public perception -- we are well on our way to improving costs to the district as well as awareness about our strengths.” And that’s not all. Community leaders created an education foundation that raised $48k in its first year, developed a partnership with Monmouth University, and continues to make substantial investment in the development of a Middle School STEM Academy.

The mission is clear, according to Mr. Loughran: “The goal of a unified Tri-District is to foster collaboration, innovation, and cost efficiency among our schools so that students are provided with the best tools and learning environments to succeed in a diverse, global, technological society.”

So where does the Tri-District go from here? The Tri-District Strategic Plan is set for BOE approval in each of the Tri-District schools in December. This plan will be implemented and continually used to monitor progress in our schools, regardless of the outcome of regionalization. At the same time, the superintendent is awaiting results from the state’s regionalization feasibility study. Once the districts determine whether becoming a regionalized school district is feasible, steps would be taken to educate the community about the specific costs and benefits of becoming a single district, and then it would put regionalization up for a referendum. If the referendum passes, then steps would be taken to become a single district. If it does not pass, the three districts would continue to make the most of the opportunities it has to share resources. “Regardless of the feasibility study and the final decision about regionalization, we will continue to utilize our Tri-District Strategic Plan to monitor progress and continue to find ways to work together, share services, and improve education for all of our students – which is always the driving force behind all we do,” Dr. Compton stated.