FORT EDWARD, N.Y. (NEWS10) – It’s going to be a summer with much to think about for two neighboring school districts.
Fort Edward Union Free School District has been looking into the prospect of merging with one of their neighbors since 2018, and the conversation started with South Glens Falls Central School District not too long after.
Now, consultants at firm Castallo and Silky have finished the work the two districts hired them for, building a full report on what the merger would like financially, and socially, for both communities. Two consultants from the firm presented that data in a special board meeting on June 14.
By the numbers, by the classroom
Both districts have seen steady enrollment decline, which the report measures out through the last six years for both.
In Fort Edward, that drop is a decline from 494 to 396. In South Glens Falls, a considerably larger district geographically and in terms of student body, the numbers have dipped from 3,136 to 2,831.
Those are K-12 numbers, not taking into account preschool numbers. Looking into the future, the cycle is likely to continue.
“The further out we go, the less reliable this data becomes,” said consultant Deb Ayers, who was one of the presenters, “but it is projected to continue to decline.”
Being small fish entering a big pond may be advantageous to Fort Edward students, considering how few of them there are in some cases. The report says that 55% of Fort Edward secondary education classes have 10 students or fewer.
The report includes a recommendation that the current Fort Edward school building continue to be used for elementary classes. Because of how the numbers decline after elementary school, starting in middle school, all Fort Edward students would go to South Glens Falls middle and high schools.
The consultants also recommended maintaining all current extracurricular clubs and activities from both districts.
“So if a merger were to occur, there would be more courses, more activities, more options in the merged district,” said Alan Pole, the other consultant presenting.
Keeping the right people for the job
Fort Edward’s declining enrollment has been part of a bigger complex of financial issues that, in 2020, led to voters rejecting a school budget twice that ended in school programs and several faculty positions being cut.
In May, this year’s budget was approved, meaning some of those positions are coming back, including pre-K, kindergarten, 4th grade and 5th grade teachers.
Other administrative spots were never filled, though, but that could make the consolidation easier.
Whether they’d be moving buildings to teach high school or sticking around for elementary education, the Fort Edward teachers who would now fall under the South Glens Falls umbrella would be seeing a significant raise, of approximately $5,900, based on South Glens Falls’ salary schedule.
It was clarified that the study is off a bit, because it was created before the news that the teachers who were laid off last year would be able to return.
“One of the things that happens in any merger study is we take a snapshot,” said Pole. “There are probably very few things in here that will be the same one year down the road, two years, three years, four years down the road.”
A projected 11 positions could be reduced between the two districts, as well as a superintendent’s position that would become redundant as the two merge. The savings from those changes would create a savings of around $1,422,290.
The report estimates that no member of either school faculty would be likely to lose their job.
The town of Fort Edward is home to an Irving Tissue property that has not had to pay taxes until this year, due to a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement that has now expired.
The tax value of that property was reassessed earlier this year, and reduced by around half.
Because of those tax challenges, Fort Edward has a history of depending on state aid and their own fund balance, moreso than South Glens Falls. The merger would lessen the amount of stress that the town tax situation has caused the financially-strained Fort Edward district.
Ayers also clarified that some of the financial projections in the report were estimates, as the 2021-22 property tax roll has not been made available as of yet.
Getting the message out
After the presentation, which can be found in full on the school merger website, the two consultants took questions from those present in the Fort Edward auditorium.
One community question asked whether enough assurances were in place to guarantee that nothing promised in the merger study now would be gone back on.
Pole said that, while the merger report isn’t an exact look at the future, there are important things to remember within it. The consultants’ job isn’t to say exactly what’s ahead, but to give a better look at what direction to point.
“If this is seen as a positive in any way, what goes with that is some degree of trust that the people who are making decisions about the merged school district have the best interests of the community and the students at heart,” Pole said. “If you don’t believe that, you’re gonna have a tough time supporting any kind of change.”
Another question regarded the timeline of events as it stands from here.
That timeline includes a joint meeting in early August, where board members from both Fort Edward and South Glens Falls school districts will meet to discuss whether to bring the school merger to a proper community vote.
Then, a public information period inviting community comments and questions will run from August until the end of September.
A community member pointed out that an earlier draft gave a much longer public comment period, starting in June. She asked whether enough time was being given for public comment and information exchange, especially compared to Worcester and Schenevus school districts, near Oneonta, which have allowed much longer in their own ongoing merger process.
“They had almost too much time between the conclusion of the study and the board vote,” said Ayers.
She explained that those districts had a longer public comment period because they had already found themselves with a significantly larger gap of time than would have been ideal, and needed to keep the merger in people’s minds. With tighter planning, that won’t be needed here in the same way.
The official decision on whether to go forward with the study will be made on Oct. 9. Neither school district offered any additional comment when contacted on Tuesday.