It’s time to merge!

 Note: my original title for this post was titled “Eitner to Small Districts: Drop Dead” — it was changed out of respect of those offended by the title.

Does anyone remember this famous headline?

It was rough, but it caught the eye and it got your attention. Did it work on you?

Some may see this as a rant, but I’m here to speak my mind and confess to what I’ve been advocating for the past two years: small school districts need to go away in NJ in places where they simply can.

What defines small? Anything listed as a school district with under 200 students. And yes, there’s a boatload of them in NJ.

Before you keep reading, yes, I was a chief school administrator in one. What most knew — I was extensively meeting with various stakeholders and Department of Education officials about how we can make things better. Not to anyone’s surprise, but the conversation kept going back to the same idea over and over: merging with another school district will save tons of money and offer more to students.

Again, why am I doing this? Simple; I’m doing this for our students, because in small districts, students suffer. A lot.

How do students suffer in a small school district? Several ways, but the biggest red flags:

  • At some point, students will have to interact with a teacher who should have retired / quit a long time ago.
  • At another point, the lack of course offerings or student placement will stifle the student ability to succeed.

Let’s tackle the first ugly point in the room. Can’t you make that argument in any school there are ineffective educators? Yes, but in bigger districts, administrators have a trick. Some call it “the dance of the lemons”, others call it “the turkey trot” or even “horse trading”. In common man  terms, it’s when useless educators get shifted to another job / position / building to either bury them or put them in a job where they are barely interacting with students. Every district has them.  In a small district, what happens when you have a group of teachers that all have been there forever and all are really poor at their job?  Yes, we can give PD, and yes, you can give poor evaluation scores now, but the daily grind still has those teachers interacting.  You can bury one or two… but what about 5 or 6?  Teachers like this:

  • The teacher who is friends with parents of their class on Facebook and messages on public forums to not only talk shop, but to stir the pot and spread rumors.
  • The teacher who sends text messages to her class parents telling them not to take the PARCC test.
  • The teacher who is completely stuck on doing things their way and refuses to budge an inch, resulting in student suffering and lacking consistency.
  • The teacher who is simply out of touch and just gets moved, but when they do, they screw up the other place they get moved to.
  • The teacher who is habitually absent (not for health reasons, but for everything else but).

The next issue deals with allowing students to get what they actually need.  I didn’t really reflect on this until a conversation with a teacher last year.  She lived in the next town over and I asked her why she brought her kids instead of another where she lives (which has an even smaller District then where I was). She explained that there was more opportunity and courses  / differentiation available to them. Ya know what? Spot on.

So, what’s the next step? The first step is acceptance.  It’s very hard to accept the fact that what you’ve been doing for the longest time is no longer beneficial to students and is no longer cost-effective. The second step is starting to reach out and seeing what can be done.  Everything else falls into place.

Lastly, I have many friends who are Superintendents in small districts that are getting the job done.Most of them are in places we can’t do anything until the state NJDOE gives the go ahead.  BUT – where I was before – the wheels are in motion, and some folks are finally in it for the better.

Let our learners get what they need; it’s worth starting a conversation at the least.

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