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Two veteran Niagara County school superintendents are learning new lessons these days while also serving as pioneers for an innovative way of doing things – sharing districts.

It is believed there are only a handful of superintendents throughout the entire state overseeing more than one rural school district this year, and Niagara County is home to two of them.

Barker Superintendent Roger J. Klatt also heads the Royalton-Hartland District, while Wilson Superintendent Michael S. Wendt also is interim superintendent for Newfane schools.

“We are in unexplored territory, and we’re learning a lot,” said Wendt, who has been at the helm of the Wilson district for the past 12 years.

“I think this is the wave of the future,” said Newfane School Board President James Reineke. “This is advantageous to both districts because it allows us to retain local control of our districts while selecting those services – in this case the superintendent – which yield savings. There’s no doubt it’s saved both districts money. And we can use those savings to prioritize our funds and pay down our deficit, for example, or fund programs for our students.”

Klatt, Barker superintendent for the past seven years, began also handling superintendent duties at Roy-Hart on July 1, when Kevin MacDonald left to head the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership. The Barker and Roy-Hart boards will decide at the end of the school year if Klatt will be hired at Roy-Hart again next year.

The arrangement will save Barker around $115,000 in salary and benefits, and save the Roy-Hart Schools $80,000 this year, said Klatt, who now oversees a combined student population of 2,345.

On July 9, Wendt entered into a shared services agreement with the Newfane district as interim superintendent, replacing the retiring Christine Tibbetts, while the district searched for a new permanent superintendent. Taking on that additional job meant that Wendt oversees the largest “share” in the state, with more than 3,000 students between the two districts. This arrangement saves each school district $10,500 in salary and benefits per month, as each district has a 30-day agreement clause. The presidents of the two districts’ school boards meet regularly to monitor progress.

Time management

Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges for both superintendents is simply a shortage of time.

“Roger and I are pretty good friends, and we try and keep in touch, but we haven’t been able to lately,” Wendt said.

“I knew coming in that the job of superintendent of a single district is very demanding on your personal and family time, and that comes with the territory – there are no complaints,” said Klatt. “I knew the share would add to that, but maybe I underestimated it.

“This may seem altruistic, but a lot of good can happen with sharing a superintendent,” he added. “And we’re facing funding crises. Expenditures continue to outpace revenues, and districts are draining their reserves to balance budgets. If $100,000 saved on a superintendent’s salary can salvage a program for the students, it’s a necessity. But it does place extraordinary demands on a person’s professional and personal life.”

“But, as in many public and private situations, everyone is being asked to do more in their jobs with less,” Klatt added. “A superintendent of schools shouldn’t be excluded. But if you can’t continue to advance the achievement of both districts, then it’s not money well spent.”

Bruce T. Fraser, executive director of the Rural Schools Association of New York, knows of possibly five other superintendents throughout the state who are managing two small, rural districts apiece this year, but he’s not convinced it’s a panacea.

“I have worked with both Mike and Roger, and they are outstanding superintendents, but they are each stretching to see if they can make this work in two districts, and with the extreme demands placed on them with the state’s major reform agenda, they are under a great deal of pressure,” Fraser said. “They are both extremely hardworking and I worry about their health … We tell schools, if you have to consider this for budget reasons, make it your last option, not your first.”

Fraser said his group is organizing a conference next month in Auburn where both Klatt and Wendt are scheduled to speak about sharing districts “and people can hear from the practitioners about what might be good about this and about their concerns, too.”

Barker and Roy-Hart

Roy-Hart School Board President Patricia Riegle said that so far, her board has been pleased with the arrangement and that Klatt has been “very accessible.”

“We will probably start discussions with the Barker School Board to evaluate the first half of the school year and make our decision around April or May” as to whether to continue the shared arrangement, Riegle said.

“We didn’t make this decision overnight,” she explained. “We had had experience with sharing the football program with Barker, and that had gone very well. This was well- thought-out. You have to look at the size and location of the two districts – a lot of characteristics must be examined to determine whether it’s appropriate for one individual to oversee two districts and for it to be a success. ”

Randy Atwater, a member of the Barker School Board since 1988 and current president, said the decision to share Barker’s superintendent with Roy-Hart “was certainly driven by financial considerations.”

“We’re unique in Barker in that there has been a drop-off in the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with AES Somerset that necessitated that we find some creative ways to make our money go further,” he said. “The timing worked well for Barker as well as for Roy-Hart, because, from our standpoint, we have an experienced management staff, and Dr. Klatt is in a stable situation to give this a try. It’s a little too early to pass judgment on it, but we believe it’s been running smoothly.”

Atwater maintained that sharing superintendents may be preferable to merging rural districts with rising costs and shrinking populations “because of the sheer distance between districts. Sharing superintendents seems to be the logical way to approach the situation.”

He added: “These are interesting and challenging times, with the implementation of the Common Core and teacher assessments. But we just had a board retreat, and we left feeling positive about the things going on in our district.”

Wilson and Newfane

That description of leadership is echoed in Wilson, where School Board President George Waters described Wendt as “really sharp, with such a hard-work ethic instilled in him because of his agriculture background.”

“I’ve known Mike as long as he’s been in the Wilson schools,” Waters said. “He always goes above and beyond his duties as a superintendent and is always a champion for rural schools.”

Wendt said he’s learned a lot from juggling the two jobs.

“But there is no way I could do this without a great staff at both districts,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m wiped out. But I knew I would be coming in. Long-term, I don’t think this is sustainable, unless you have a different management model.”

Wendt believes it may be worthwhile to study a “management team” that would oversee perhaps three districts and keep two superintendents. “But I am 100 percent behind the autonomy of individual districts to govern their own schools through their individual school boards.”

Waters concurred, adding that he fears the current arrangement may not be effective in the long run, because, “We’ll wear the guy out. That’s my take.”

“We’re used to having Mike around 100 percent of the time, so this has been difficult for us,” Waters said. “We’re happy to entertain ideas and think outside of the box, but we already run pretty lean here in Wilson. We’re not administration-heavy. I’ve never had any reason to doubt his judgment, and I support him, but I’m concerned about his health.”

Waters said he and Newfane’s Reineke meet every couple of weeks to review the situation.

Reineke thinks that in order for districts to survive, they have to be creative and learn to share services and costs.

“This is especially important in Niagara County and particularly in Newfane, where our student population has declined 12 percent over the past three years,” Reineke said. “I don’t know if this is sustainable in the long term, but if it isn’t, at the end of the day, we can say that we tried it, we put everything out there to make it work ... But we have begun a superintendent search because we have to be prepared to look beyond Dr. Wendt for candidates to help us in Newfane” if this agreement is dissolved.

Reineke said he has heard concerns in the community about having a part-time superintendent, but it doesn’t bother him.

“I see the time Dr. Wendt comes in and the time he leaves, and I feel comfortable that we’re getting close to the same amount of services we’d have if we had a full-time superintendent here,” Reineke said.

Support at work, home

Wendt said his day typically begins with a trip to the gym at 6:15 a.m. and that he’s in the office by around 7:15.

“I want to be in each district each day, so I spend the mornings in one district and afternoons in the other, and then switch it the next week,” he said. “I’ve found it doesn’t matter which district I’m sitting in, I’m still doing Wilson work when I’m in Newfane and Newfane work when I’m in Wilson.”

His days are long. He’s gone as late as 10 p.m.

He relies on his cellphone and email to stay in contact with the two districts. “That’s how I take the pulse of the district. I get attendance lists and daily updates from my principals. I’ll bet I average 30 emails an hour.”

Klatt credits his boards and staffs in both districts.

“An efficient share depends on the support staff you have,” he said. “I have very capable secretaries, and strong and competent building leaders.

Both men credited their families, as well.

“Mike and I are both driven personally and want to be associated with success, and that can sometimes come at the expense of being a good husband and father,” said Klatt, who has two daughters away at college. “My wife, Kristen’s, support is beyond what I could hope for. I could not do this without her.”

Wendt and his wife, Elaine, who is a middle school principal in Medina, have two grown sons, and he echoed Klatt’s sentiments, stating, “Without a supportive spouse, I couldn’t do this.”

Klatt is cautiously optimistic that the scheduling will eventually ease up.

“This could be a great cost savings, but it can’t be at the expense of forfeiting the mission of the school districts – to advance student learning,” Klatt said.