Township Councilwoman Fran Siddons had no idea of the backlash she would face when she suggested at a recent Berkeley Board of Education meeting that the district share more services with Central Regional.
That is, until she walked into the Township Council meeting room on Monday night and saw the left side filled with Berkeley bus drivers who were apparently afraid they would lose their jobs.
That is, until she saw several Berkeley Board of Education members - including board Vice-President Sophia Gingrich and board member Steven Pellecchia - sitting in the audience.
"I walked into a lynch mob," Siddons said Tuesday. "They took everything out of context. There was an agenda there last night and people in the audience knew it."
Siddons spoke at the recent Berkeley Board of Education meeting as a private citizen, although Board President James Fulcomer identified her as a council member on her way to the podium.
Here is what she said, in a nutshell, direct from the statement she read into the record.
Siddons urged the Berkeley school board to work out a plan with Central to reduce the number of department heads from eight to four.
She also suggested combining the transportation departments and having one superintendent and one business administrator to oversee both districts.
"These plans together should eventually save the taxpayers up to at least a million dollars a year," Siddons said in the statement. "This is an urgent need for our town, since people in our maritime areas have suffered great losses and the tax burden is likely to shift to the adult and other neighborhoods of our town. We can no longer afford the unnecessary expense of duplicate central administrations for our school districts."
That apparently was all it took for the anti-shared services faction to work the school bus drivers into a frenzy about the possible loss of their jobs.
Some drivers who spoke said the safety of the district's elementary school students would be compromised if the two districts' transportation departments were eventually merged.
Others - including Mayor Carmen F. Amato Jr. - were worried that kindergartners would be riding on the same buses as high school students.
"I would not be in favor of jeopardizing the safety of our students," Amato said.
Turns out none of that will happen. No bus drivers would lose their jobs. Little children would not be sharing seats with high school seniors.
Two years ago, Central Regional officials met with Berkeley district officials to explore the feasibility of merging the bus fleets for both districts, Central Regional Superintendent Triantafillos Parlapanides said today.
"It makes sense," he said. "We're only allowed to use buses for 15 years. Each of us has to buy three new buses a year. If you merge the fleet, one of us doesn't have to buy three buses a year. We would keep all the bus drivers. Nobody would lose their jobs."
Merging the two fleets would be a five to ten-year process. The only jobs eliminated would be through attrition, Parlapanides said.
There would be a three-tier bus run system if the fleets merged - high school students first; Central Regional Middle School and Berkeley Township Elementary School students, who are fifth and sixth-graders - next, and all other elementary school students shortly after. BTES and middle school students would not ride on the same buses, just have the same pick-up times, he said.
Together the two school districts have roughly 4,300 students. Neighboring Lacey Township, a K-12 district, has roughly 4,500. The Lacey school district has 38 school buses. Combined, Central Regional and Berkeley have 70 buses.
But just because the bus merging analysis makes sense, that doesn't mean it will happen. Past Berkeley school boards have never looked kindly at shared services. James Fulcomer - the current board president - was the lone vocal voice for shared services last year and was often lambasted for his views.
It took the school board more than two years to hire a permanent superintendent - after two interim superintendents. James D. Roselli was eventually hired, after the board hired a consultant for a superintendent search.
Parlapanides submitted his application and offered to take over the Berkeley school superintendent duties for free. He was never interviewed. Pellecchia, who was board president last year, said he didn't think Parlapanides was qualified.
Others in town may not agree with the school's board historical reluctance to shared services. Members of the Berkeley Township Taxpayers Coalition are beginning to attend board meetings.
Coalition member James Gallinaw said during the public portion of the council meeting that the group would be taking a close look at spending in the school districts this year.
"Schools happen to be higher here than other (tax) rates, so it's a likely source," he said. "We intend to do that and we will do it with the facts. We do support Fran Siddons. She spoke as a citizen, not as a councilwoman."
Current board member Salvatore Ferlise said at the council meeting that the board had not met recently with Central Regional officials to discuss any transportation issues.
But Ferlise did not rule out shared services for administrative positions, through attrition.
"If someone leaves their position...that would save us a lot of money," he said. "I don't know where this (bus drivers) got out, that people are going to be fired."
No one owned up to that at the council meeting. But it's clear there's a lot more going on behind the scenes. It should be an interesting year.