Kentucky School Advocate
By Brenna. R. Kelly
In the Franklin County Schools bus garage a mechanic raises a school bus on a lift, takes off the wheels and prepares to replace the brakes. But the name on the side of the bus isn’t Franklin County Schools, it’s Frankfort Independent.
For years, Franklin’s bus mechanics have serviced the independent district’s buses. Now the districts are hiring a part-time mechanic who will be a Franklin County employee but will service Frankfort Ind.’s buses.
As districts grapple with funding cuts and how to use taxpayer’s money efficiently, some school districts are forging partnerships to share operations. This kind of sharing of non-instructional functions is something superintendents say is becoming more common among Kentucky’s 172 school districts.
“Every time a position opens up, we’re all looking at it, we’re talking every time,” said Kelly Middleton, superintendent of Newport Independent, which shares a finance director, food services director and human resource services with Southgate Independent, its smaller neighbor. ‘Win’ for districts and taxpayers
For the past three years, Newport’s food service director has done double duty at Southgate, a K-8 district of fewer than 200 students.
Then when Southgate’s finance director retired in 2018, Southgate Superintendent Greg Duty and the school board looked to Newport again.
“Newport’s right there in our back yard, it just made sense, and realistically it’s been a win-win,” he said.
Both boards of education as well as the Kentucky Department of Education approved the arrangement, Duty said. The arrangement is saving Southgate at least $60,000, he said. The districts then agreed to share some personnel functions, including payroll and other human resources services.
Diane Hatfield, Southgate board chairwoman, said sharing operations just made financial sense.
“We are trying to be good stewards of our dollars, while at the same time making sure we have the people with the expertise,” she said. “It has been a great opportunity for us to know that we have people from Newport that are skilled in those areas and bring that to Southgate.”
Communication and trust are important parts of the arrangement, Hatfield said.
“Finance is a very critical area, you need to make sure that you feel the trust and the support,” she said.
Middleton said that with the money from Southgate, Newport increased the salaries of the staff who took on more work. Newport plans to evaluate the arrangement each year, he said.
“I think the way we all looked at it was we’ll try it out and if does not work, we’ll back up and say, ‘All right, we do our own,’” Middleton said. “So far it’s a win-win-win for both district and taxpayers.”
Southgate has been able to use the money it’s saved to hire the district’s first full-time counselor and to fund its literacy initiative, Duty said.
“The message you’re sending is you’re trying to save taxpayers’ money that can really be used to increase student achievement,” he said.
As staff retire and funding becomes more of a concern, Middleton said he expects more sharing of services.
“We’ve talked about can we do even more,” he said. “I’m not so sure that some districts couldn’t do superintendency.”
Middleton noted that Northern Kentucky is ripe for sharing with 13 districts in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties alone. Many already have close ties, Hatfield said, with five independent districts in Campbell County, “it’s not uncommon around here to figure out how to support each other.” ‘Count on them as our help’
That’s just how Franklin County Superintendent Mark Kopp feels about working with Frankfort Independent.
“I have a general philosophy about this, and that is that every kid in this area, whether they are Frankfort Independent or Franklin County Schools or some private school or homeschool, it doesn’t matter, they are all our kids and it is our moral obligation to help them in any way that we can,” he said.
Franklin County has more than 80 buses and a large bus garage and three full-time mechanics to service them. Frankfort Independent has eight buses for its nearly 800 students and a bus lot without a garage.
All buses must be inspected every 30 days and, without Franklin County’s help, his district wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements, said Frankfort Independent Superintendent Houston Barber.
“Thankfully, Franklin County has offered to be a wonderful partner and support of what we do, so they allow us to have access to everything that’s needed for mechanical updates, bus repairs and overall support,” he said. “We count on them as our help.”
With the small number of buses, it wouldn’t be cost-effective for Frankfort to have its own mechanics and bus garage, Barber said. So the districts have a memorandum of understanding under which Franklin County bills Frankfort for the parts and the labor. This year, after realizing the mechanics were spending more time on the independent district’s buses, the districts decided to hire the part-time mechanic just to work on Frankfort’s buses.
Both school boards approved the arrangement.
Kopp said the districts share other services such as interpreters. Some Frankfort Independent students also take classes at Franklin’s career and technical education center, he said.
The superintendents work closely together and recently gave a joint speech together in front of the local retired teachers’ association.
“We’re a team,” Barber said. “We work together to come up with a plan of how we can help each other out, that’s the only way to do it.”
Kopp said though all school districts are competitive and protective of their own, they also want to work together.
“All of us, every school district in the state is in competition with each other, but we also collaborate,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this business for the same reason, and that’s to help children.” County to county
Not all partnerships involve small independent districts. Woodford and Jessamine counties joined together to provide adult education. That partnership, which began in the 2018-19 school year, came about after the state changed the way it funded adult education, said Mary Newton, Jessamine County Schools director of adult education.
“The idea of that was to get rid of some of the administrative overhead and encourage smaller counties to partner together to provide services and share staff,” she said.
Woodford County would no longer qualify for a single-county program so Superintendent Scott Hawkins said his district looked next door to Jessamine County, which has a strong adult education program.
“We reached out to them to say, ‘Hey, is this something where we can work together?’” he said.
The Woodford adult education instructors now work for Jessamine County Schools. In addition to the grant funding, Woodford rents an adult education center in its county and pays Jessamine for an instructor, Newton said.
“The program has grown tremendously since this partnership,” she said, adding that the number of adults learning English as a second language in Woodford County grew from nine to 48.
There were so many more adults seeking their GEDs that Woodford had to rent a bigger space, Hawkins said.
“Mary is phenomenal,” he said. “Jessamine had a really strong program that was viewed across the state as one of the best. I think when you become a part of that, your game gets raised a little bit.”
Newton said the partnership has worked well for both districts.
“There has been tremendous support not only from Woodford County, but also from the Woodford County Board of Education,” she said. “Their members are fabulous, and they have encouraged everything that we’ve done. They’ve come to our culture fair that we put on last fall, they came to our graduation and have just been really supportive and want to see this program continue.”
Partnerships that allow districts to save money or to give their students more opportunities such as career and technical education or earning dual credit will likely increase across the state, Hawkins said.
“I think you’re going to see that probably more and more so,” he said. “Particularly in your smaller districts, you can’t do it all by yourself.”
Shared services common elsewhere
Though school districts sharing non-instructional services is a relatively new trend in Kentucky, it’s been going on across the country for years.
Shared school district administrator arrangements gained favor in many regions as districts’ budgets shrink, ASSA, the national school superintendents’ association. The association’s magazine School Administrator in a 2011 article explored how thinning resources mostly in midwestern states lead many districts to share superintendents.
Neighboring districts sharing superintendents is also common practice across New England, where small communities want to maintain their identity and independence, the magazine noted. In Iowa, the state’s education department offered financial incentives for districts that agreed to share services, ASSA said.
A 2005 Deloitte research study, “Driving More Money into the Classroom: The Promise of Shared Services” concluded that sharing services “can be presented as one of the least painful ways to pare educational costs.”
As an example, the report noted seven districts in Connecticut have a shared services arrangement that includes the superintendent, director of instruction, federal programs, special education directors and a legal agent. In West Texas, a regional service center for handles payroll and accounting services for several rural school districts in an area of about 19,000 square miles. The center saves each district over 50 percent a year and some up to 88 percent annually, the report said.
The report also points out that sharing services is more a popular cost cutting option than consolidating districts. In a 2002 survey by Michigan State University, about 43 percent of Michigan residents favored districts sharing resources as the best way to reduce costs, two times more than those who favored consolidation.
Top photo: Ryan Shouse, a Franklin County Schools mechanic, replaces the brakes on a Frankfort Independent bus. The county district inspects and repairs the independent district’s eight buses under an agreement between the two school boards.
Second photo: Southgate Independent Superintendent Greg Duty, left, talks with Newport Independent Superintendent Kelly Middleton during KSBA’s Fall Regional Meeting in northern Kentucky.
Third photo: Last year, Jessamine County began administering Woodford County’s adult education program. The result was an increase in the number of GEDs completed, 82 total. Jessamine County Schools Superintendent Matt Moore (third from right) and Woodford County Schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins (second from left) attended the joint graduation. (Photo provided by Jessamine County Schools)