Ewing school and township officials celebrated the groundbreaking of a new playground for the O’Brien Academy at Fisher Middle School on June 14, 2018. Pictured are township business administrator James McManimon, councilwoman Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, councilman Kevin Baxter, Mayor Bert Steinmann, school board president Karen McKeon, school board vice president Anthony Messina, school board member Lisa McConnell, assistant superintendent Danita Ishibashi, school board member Stephanie Staub, school board member Bruce White, school board member Channing Conway, director of special services operations and grant management Harry Louth, Superintendent Michael Nitti and Dennis Nettleton, school business administrator.

Ewing Township and school district officials on June 14 celebrated the ground breaking for a new playground for the O’Brien Academy on the Fisher Middle School campus.

The facility is a shared-services project between Ewing Township and the Ewing Public Schools.

In 2011, the Ewing Schools opened the O’Brien Academy—an alternative educational program designed for students in elementary and middle school who may be struggling in a regular school setting.

Offering a highly-trained supportive staff that is a combination of curriculum instructors and student support personnel, the O’Brien Academy was an immediate success, according to a school district press release.

“The O’Brien Academy has proven to be very beneficial for our students and school district,” said Harry Louth, director of special services for the school district. “These are our students, and the structure of a traditional school day may not be for every child. This program allows us to meet the needs of these students, and avoid placements out of district, which also saves the district and taxpayers money.”

The O’Brien Academy is housed in the former administrative offices of the Ewing Schools. As the program grew, so did the building, with an expansion in 2013 that added classrooms and more appropriate instructional space. But as enrollment increased and the program evolved, something was missing.

“We really needed a playground,” Louth said. “The children have access to the Fisher gym, and we did some clever things for outside recreation, but remember, these are mostly elementary students, and there’s nothing better for fitness and a mindfulness break for them than a playground.”

However, with a state-mandated 2 percent cap on tax revenue, and most of that increase in funds being taken by fixed costs or other high priority items such as technology and security needs, it was difficult for the district to find the money for the O’Brien Academy playground.

But that did little to soothe the feelings of the students at O’Brien. “They let me hear about it every time I stopped by,” Louth said.

The district found a solution by working with the township. Mayor Bert Steinmann informed the district that the township would contribute a portion of the township’s PILOT funds from recent township development projects to the school district in order to build the playground.

“This is something that the mayor legally did not have to do, but he felt that it was the right thing to do, and for that we are very grateful,” said school board president Karen McKeon.

“The partnership between Ewing Township and the Ewing BOE is gratifying to see when we both work collectively to support all of our community,” Steinmann said.

“I think what community members really want to see is their governmental organizations working together to make life better for the residents,” McKeon said. “We believe that this is another excellent example of a truly effective and rewarding shared service relationship.”

Said the district press release: “Many Ewing Township residents may not know the extent of the effective shared services relationship between the municipal government and the school district and how it benefits community members.

“Board of Education facilities are used consistently and frequently by community programs. The Board’s Gusz administrative facility has become a home for both the school district and municipality. Specialized personnel, information, resources and technology are shared. Furthermore, the strong relationship between the school district and the Ewing Township Police Department with regard to approaches to school security and communications has been praised by outside organizations.”