(NEWS10) – Two school districts in the north country took another step this week towards a potential merger a long time in the making – and with a long way yet to go.

On Monday, respective board meetings at Fort Edward Union Free School District and South Glens Falls Central School District agreed to hire an educational consultant to begin a formal study on a merger between the two districts. The decision is the latest step in a multi-year process stemming from declining enrollment and growing financial strain at Fort Edward.

The consultant, Castallo & Silky, LLC, worked previously with the two districts on a pre-merger study last year, which considered both South Glens Falls and Hudson Falls. Now they will be gathering new information on the staff and financial impacts on the two districts, all just weeks after Fort Edward district voters rejected the district’s proposed budget for a second time.

The merger would annex Fort Edward into South Glens Falls, one of two districts with which Fort Edward is contiguous. The other contiguous district is Hudson Falls. Annexing would allow the Fort Edward building to continue operating, while sharing resources and tuition requirements with South Glens Falls. South Glens Falls being in a different county would not impact the decision.

The study will look at how building and classroom configurations could change if the two districts were to merge. Effects on staffing, programs, transportation and financial impacts and savings will all be taken into account as well.

The work will take time, with the districts expecting to present a completed study within the next 12 to 18 months. Pending state approval and a community vote, the merger would most likely happen in fall 2021 or winter 2022, according to South Glens Falls Communications Specialist Monica Lester.

The two districts have no intention of keeping the public in the dark in the meantime, though. Sometime in the next month, a joint advisory committee will be formed from school staff and community members from South Glens Falls and Fort Edward, to review findings from Castallo & Silky, LLC as they come. Whatever information they have will be shared with the public.

Fort Edward’s changing future

One of the subjects to be scrutinized in the study is how academic and extracurricular programs would be changed by the merger. For Fort Edward, the merger may be the only way to keep some of those programs available for students.

Last month, voters said no for a second time to a proposed budget from Fort Edward Union Free School District, which would have continued to support sports teams and extracurricular activities at the cost of a larger tax hike on an already burdened community. With that budget shot down, the district is now operating on a contingency budget, one which says farewell to those programs for lack of funds.

Mental health services in line with New York’s COVID-19 reopening requirements will still be fulfilled, but with reductions in place, according to Superintendent Daniel Ward in a News 10 interview last month.

It doesn’t stop there. As reported by the Glens Falls Post-Star, in the same Monday school board meeting that chose a merger consultant, the Fort Edward board is eyeing shutting down their prekindergarten program due to a lack of enrollment, along with a reduction in grants from the state.

In that same meeting, the board voted to eliminate a fourth-grade elementary teacher position and three part-time teachers, as well as cutting counselor hours. They also voted to delay the start of the 2020-21 school year to Sept. 14, in order to take more time preparing and training in line with coronavirus safety regulations.

Fort Edward Superintendent Daniel Ward was not availible for comment on the merger on Wednesday.

A study a long time coming

Just as the financial hardships at Fort Edward have built up over time, the investigation into a possible merger has been a long process already.

Multiple pre-merger studies were prepared, starting in April 2018 with a study prepared and presented to Fort Edward by the Capital Area School Development Association. South Glens Falls wasn’t yet in the conversation; instead, that study focused on annexing to Hudson Falls.

The study outlined enrollment projections looking as far ahead as 2023, as well as financial projections as far as 2022. It also considered possible changes in tuition rates and laid out what it would mean for Fort Edward to be annexed, as opposed to being centralized.

“Unlike in centralization, annexation does not result in the creation of a new district, nor is a new school board elected. The operation of the annexing school district remains basically the same before and after the annexation,” the study explains. “Residents of the annexed district become eligible to vote and may be elected to the school board of the annexing district in subsequent elections.”

The study also pointed out that the former General Electric dewatering site’s effect on tax value in Fort Edward has an impact on tuition. That impact would be lessened if tuition was being paid to another district.

In July 2019, a public presentation was held at Fort Edward, with Hudson Falls and South Glens Falls representatives, to show a feasibility study examining both other districts as options. Arranged by Castallo & Silky, it presents numbers on tuition, community support in voting records, and other factors cross-compared between the three districts.

That second study eyed the advantages and disadvantages of either merge. It found that although an annex with either district could lead to more competition to get meaningful time in sports or clubs, Hudson Falls would come with the added issues of a more costly increase in teacher salaries to match the district, as well as a higher remaining debt service than at South Glens Falls.

It also found that merging with South Glens Falls would generate more state incentive operating aid to pull the merger off with; $49,626,450, as opposed to Hudson Falls’ $44,060,947.

Fort Edward also gathered community responses, from a survey as well as community forum events. Many responses to the survey highlight the high taxes already faced by the district, and call the merger the best way to make those rates more livable. Others worry about the effect on students’ learning.