In 1998, Woodbridge Township made a commitment to their children when the Municipal Government combined services with the Woodbridge Township School District. This Herculean effort twenty years ago meant 24 local schools in the school district and the local government shook hands to share services encompassing everything from plowing to a local government data center.
The shared services technology program agreement is now going on its twentieth year and the community continues to place priority on its students, while saving over $900,000 a year.
“This program started in early 1998-1999 by connecting the schools with the media centers, as they were the hubs where all of the network equipment was stored. We put the kids first and provided 125 computers throughout the 24 schools and since then we’ve been able to save money and add more to the agreement, benefiting everyone but especially the kids,” said Michael Esolda, Chief Information Officer of Woodbridge Township Municipal Government Public Safety and School District.
The Shared Services Agreement Began in 1998
The sharing agreement first started with a conversation between then – Chief Financial Officer/now current Mayor of Woodbridge Township, Mayor John E. McCormac, and the school district administration. The two entities brainstormed ways they could put the community’s children first, and the discussion ranged from how to share services for things such as rock salt, janitorial services, and plowing. They went a step farther and considered working together to connect all 24 schools to the local government data center.
For this vision to become reality, the data center was able to get a lease purchase from the Woodbridge Township School District for a million dollars, a bonding ordinance from the Woodbridge Township for a million dollars, and a local business arrangement provided money in lieu of taxes for another million dollars.
The sharing agreement and financing was able to connect all 24 Woodbridge Township schools with Internet and a data repository – soon becoming the network operation center for both the town and the school, simply by having an inter-local agreement between the two parties.
“In many ways, the venture was like the town and the school district reached across the street and shook hands in how to share services that profited everyone,” Esolda said.
Woodbridge Township quickly saw the partnerships benefits, not only with its students, but in financial savings. After the initial agreement was set in place, the entity was able to refinance the phone system. The savings was used to provide a Voice Over IP phone system between the town and the school district.
This effort results in additional financial savings, and the community was able to build their own private fiber network, which alone saves the township $900,000 a year. The fiber network also provides unlimited bandwidth between all of the schools, which has grown to almost 30,000 devices and computers.
Recently, from savings, the school district put two access points in every classroom and upgraded all of the network switches in all of the schools. Other savings allowed the township to put in a redundant Internet circuit, providing another layer of security if one circuit would go down.
Because of Woodbridge Township’s self-healing network, the networks are active 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. The ability to always be online gave the Township E-Rate funding from the government. Esolda said the Federal E-Rate program monies were able to go back into the classroom by purchasing one-on-one iPad usage for the entire eighth grade across five middle schools.
The township is also refreshing older equipment in public works, the library, and the new 9-1-1 system.
“I believe our methodical approach involves a reinvestment of some tax dollars, some in savings, and then back into this whole shared service network,” he said. “For example, if we do a phone upgrade, all of our thousand subscribers benefit from the upgrade. Our constituents and end users have a fast, reliable, state of the art network that allows access to all applications, whether cloud or premised based, as we continue to reinvest our savings by refreshing our infrastructure.”
Partnership Amongst Entities
Getting to this point wasn’t an easy task to combine all of the different entities, considering the partnership included everything from public safety and health to student data and business data. All of this information was combined together at the data center, which ran the gamut from public safety’s 911 issues, privacy and data, to the local government with public works, health, municipal clerks, and taxes. Thirdly, all of the student data and business information was included.
“Not only were we incorporating business and instructional efforts out of one location, but we were able to connect the school,” Esolda said. “Despite the challenge of connecting so many disparate entities and services, we were fortunate because everyone was on the same page working together for our goal of helping students.”
At the time, Woodbridge Township benefited from free equipment given to them by New Jersey Bell through a program called “Access New Jersey”. This program provided free network equipment to schools, as well as the routers and switches.
“We received the equipment for free as long as we were able to lower cost connectivity to schools as part of the statewide program,” Esolda said. “Working with New Jersey Bell, combined with the town, school, and a subsidiary of FedEx, helped us kick off this program and connect all of our schools.”
While all of the initiatives were in motion, a subsidiary of FedEx came into town. Woodbridge Township partnered with FedEx in a pilot program, where payment is received in lieu of taxes. The pilot program monies have also helped them build turf fields, field houses, school running tracks and other community use projects.
“We were an early pilot program that, ultimately, became very beneficial to us,” Esolda said. “The FedEx program keeps taxes down and continues the partnership between schools and businesses, in lieu of taxes.”
Fiber Optic Network
In 1998, Woodbridge Township started with 125 devices. Now, it has grown to 30,000 devices and computers. The fiber connects the entire community, whether it’s being used at the school or at the police department. There are 66 buildings connected throughout the fiber network.
“We built the fiber to go past the school, because if there was a firehouse, an emergency squad, or a library, we would do these inter-local agreements between all of these public entities,” Esolda shared. “We would bring them on board to either share the phones or the 911 data or cameras.”
The network is only available for public community use, but nothing is separate. Everything has been centralized in one area, saving money between the infrastructure and entities. The data center is also considered a sustainable green center because Woodbridge Township has virtualized many of the servers,thereby creating a smaller carbon footprint.
“We’re proud to share the story about our smaller carbon footprint because we’re using the latest technologies and continue to find efficiencies to eliminate costs,” Esolda said. “We know taxes are going to go up in some areas, but technology’s growth saves money and allows us to continue to put kids first, as well as public safety and local government.”
Esolda said the township’s IT budget hasn’t grown as quickly as it might have if every entity had its own data center and staff. Woodbridge has economized its budget by not having the redundancy, contributing to the overall savings.
One of the improvements Woodbridge Township made to the school district was the radio communication system. There are 110 school buses connected to the Motorola trunked radio system, providing the ability for communication during emergencies or for general conversation.
Prior to the agreement, each school had their own radio system but this changed with time, and there’s now only one system being used in the schools and public safety departments. As one can imagine, this conversion was quite the task as the oldest school was built in 1898, but there is now 99.9 percent in building coverage for radio communications throughout the township.
Education has Changed Through the Years
A lot of technology and educational thought has transformed classrooms in the past 20 years. Internet wasn’t even considered and definitely wasn’t used in classrooms, where now wireless networks are considered a necessary tool for education. Chalkboards and physical books were regular devices, while now electronic boards, Chromebooks, and virtual eBooks are commonly in the hands of students.
“There is this understanding that it’s not the same type of learning we had when we were in school,” Esolda said.
Woodbridge Township School District had to upgrade their infrastructure when No Child Left Behind and Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Collage and Careers (PARCC) online testing were integrated into schools’ schedules. Prior to these laws, a school wing could have only a dozen wireless computers, but now they can have over 600 workstations, Chromebooks, iPads, and other devices in these same school wings.
The school district also upgraded devices using textbooks savings to digital curriculum on iPads at the 8th grade level in five Middle Schools, working towards a one-to-one district. This upgrade is quite the accomplishment due to the fact Woodbridge Township School District is the tenth largest school in New Jersey with over 14,000 students, including three high schools, five middle schools, and seventeen elementary schools.
“The path to becoming a one-to-one district was certainly a challenge, but we rose to the occasion as a blended district and worked to get the devices first to teacher, whether it was an iPad, Chromebook, laptop, or work station, and then to the students,” Esolda said.
The teachers and staff were trained and received professional development, allowing them to become quite proficient and capable of helping the students with these advancements. Having these technological tools is also preparing students for their future college years, as higher education uses many of these same devices and programs.
“Students are gaining workplace readiness and becoming better prepared to enter the workforce or college,” he said.
Bettering the Community
The collaboration throughout the community has also provided benefits such as a new community center, two ice skating rinks, roller rink, and sports facility. These resources benefit everyone, but especially the children. Woodbridge Township has also taken many of the older VFW and Knights of Columbus halls and improved them for other uses.
There are ten separate towns in Woodbridge and many of these older facilities are now connected through the network. Esolda says the buildings are becoming senior centers and after-care facilities for children.
“There is an incredible partnership and outreach throughout the township,” Esolda said.
New transportation has been developed, especially for the elderly, and the school transportation department continues to follow high standards for the Township’s students.
“One of the biggest initiatives on the horizon involves securing grant money and remediating property once abandoned or contaminated and then we reinvest and clean it up,” Esolda said. “Currently, Woodbridge Township is building a 300-seat performing arts center and restaurant.”
Part of the continuous beautification is Woodbridge’s location in the region. Woodbridge has three train stops, two on the North Jersey Coast line and the one on the North East Corridor is only 30 minutes from New York City. Woodbridge’s close proximity to NYC benefits commuters or those who’d prefer to live in a slower-paced community than NYC, and one reason why 500 brand new apartments have been added.
A new art center opens in several months, which will include a school component.
“All of these great things make Woodbridge one of the best towns around,” Esolda said. “What’s neat is Woodbridge Township is the fifth largest community in New Jersey, out of 565. We are a big city with a small-town feel and we are able to connect all of our towns together.”
Sharing the Story
Woodbridge Township has been featured in nationwide articles, and Esolda says they are sharing their success metrics with other districts and municipalities throughout the state.
“There aren’t many towns doing these type of shared services arrangements,” Esolda said. “The Woodbridge success story is a good recipe for a good case study nationally. I would hope maybe someday our community will have that as a legacy to this project.”
Esolda Consults with NJSBA and NJEdge
Because of Esolda’s overall experience and knowledge, he is beginning his second year of technology consultation for the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), who is, in turn, collaborating with NJEdge. He finds value in how the two organizations can partner together, while providing countless low-cost savings and programs. The collaboration improves software, hardware, and licensing for mutual members.
“We become stronger together,” he said. “Dr. Conn, President and Chief Executive Officer, NJEdge and Dr. Feinsod, Executive Director, NJSBA, recognize this power of the partnership.”
Esolda is working with both parties as many of the products and services being offered are similar to those Woodbridge Township is also providing at their schools for their students. He says he’s in a great position to straddle both sides and provide valuable advice and insight to not only the NJSBA, but also NJEdge.
“The collaboration bringing these entities together is just incredible,” he said. “We are so excited because a lot of these products and services are going to be coming to local schools, counties, and municipalities that will help budgets and lower costs while providing better services.”
NJSBA and NJEdge’s official partnership began July 1, 2018, which includes a shared services agreement for technology purchasing for the New Jersey public sector. NJEdge’s EdgeMarket is able to further strengthen school districts, governments, and businesses within the state.
“We’re starting out small but we’re going to be running very soon, so whether it’s hardware, software, or services, the strategic partnership is about providing another outlet for these local governments and public educators – they look at this arrangement as a value. Bottom line, the NJEdge/NJSBA collaboration helps deliver these types of technology solutions to the classroom and it’s saving tax dollars. The partnership is a home run for everyone.”
Esolda looks forward to sharing success stories about the collaborative projects at EdgeCon 2019, whether it’s the long partnership at Woodbridge Township or the new alliance between NJSBA and NJEdge.
“With the talent at NJSBA and NJEdge, we are stronger together in this shared service agreement, and it’s only going to grow because we’re going to be adding products and services along the way,” he said. “We want to be able to tell our story, not just to New Jersey, but nationally and globally.”
To learn more about Woodbridge Township, go to twp.woodbridge.nj.us/.