‘Toxicity’ called out, state rules questioned over Fort Edward/South Glens Falls school merger

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(photo: Jay Petrequin)

WILTON, N.Y. (NEWS10) – As progress pushes forward on the ongoing merger study between Fort Edward and South Glens Falls school districts, people living in both communities have spoken up about what makes the merger appealing or, for some, the opposite.

The resulting tensions that have come from the merger between the Washington County and Saratoga County districts have even been felt by Fort Edward’s school board.

“I don’t know how things are in South Glens Falls, but in Fort Edward, they are extremely tense right now,” said Amanda Durkee, a member of the Fort Edward school board, in a meeting last Thursday night.

At the meeting, streamed live and hosted by WSEHE BOCES in Wilton, officials from both schools reviewed details of the existing school merger report. Durkee said that she agreed that it was important to make the details of the merger accessible to the general public, but worried about overload.

“I think that the minute that we start overloading, oversimplifying any of those pieces, I think we’re creating more toxicity.”

Durkee suggested that the people harboring those negative feelings be brought into the conversation, so the districts and consultants involved in the merger process could better identify where the issues lie.

Thursday’s meeting came after the New York State Education Department approved the merger, which would create new incentive opportunities for two districts that have faced enrollment decline over the last six years, with more expected on the horizon.

If merged, the new district would qualify for over $6 million in financial aid. Additionally, attrition rates make it likely that nobody would lose a job involuntarily.

Assuming some staff step down at usual rates, the four elementary and seven secondary school positions that would have to be cut could simply be closed as teachers leave, saving the merged district another $1.42 million.

Public opinion

Durkee has opposed the merger, and isn’t the only one to have spoken up about it within just the last week or two. Last Monday, Aug. 16, a large group of Fort Edward residents attended a public school board meeting and used the meeting’s public comment period to voice an array of concerns.

Among those concerns were claims that bullying and suicide rates at South Glens Falls Central School District were high enough to warrant worry about sending Fort Edward kids to school there.

Neither school district returned a News 10 ABC request seeking comment on those concerns last week.

Other parents said they felt the idea of more opportunities in a larger district was a fallacy, worrying their kids would get lost in the crowd.

“You say the kids have more options,” said Fort Edward resident Amanda Rabbi. “That might be true – they have six sports instead of three, fine – but they’re competing with more than five times the children to get those spots.”

The public comment period took up about the first half-hour of the meeting, which can be found in full online.

Deal or no deal

Durkee also voiced concern over the value of merger studies in general, saying that she felt merger studies to be designed to “sell a product;” the product in question being annexation itself.

“So although the studies are different, the districts are different, I do feel very strongly that the script is the same,” she said in Thursday’s meeting. “The fact that they (The state department of education) have this insane amount of money, to give to districts because they choose to abolish something, is insane to me.”

The presentation was made by Alan Pole and Deb Ayers, consultants from the firm Castallo & Silky.

Pole and Ayers agreed with Durkee that the state of New York wants to encourage districts to merge where it makes sense, but broke off at the notion that “selling a product” was the sole purpose of merger studies.

One nearby merger study brought up in comparison happened in nearby Glens Falls, where Abraham Wing formally merged into the school district.

Often, as in the case of Fort Edward, one attractive plus of a district merger is a lowered tax rate. In the case of Abraham Wing, the taxes couldn’t equalize; tax rates would go up whether or not the merger took place, which meant what would have been a big selling point out the window.

“Well that’s not a recommendation that’s going to be received very positively,” said Pole. “Why would you even think somebody’s going to vote for anything where their tax rate’s going to go up? So, you should not think the outcome of this study mirrors the outcome of every other study. It doesn’t.”

Pole said the state’s inclination toward mergers fits with a belief that education can be run more effectively if the state stays below a total of 700 school districts.

“My point is, sometimes even with these incentives, sometimes it’s not enough.”

Pole said that three or four of the 13 merger studies he’s been a part of have ended with evidence of a merger being a bad idea.

What’s next, when’s next

Now that officials from both districts are familiar with the merger report in full, the next step turns its focus back to the community that has had thoroughly mixed reactions on the topic.

First comes a vote on Oct. 6, where both Fort Edward and South Glens Falls school boards will separately vote on whether or not to bring the merger to a public vote.

If they say yes, a referendum vote will follow on Nov. 17. If that passes, the merge would be effective starting in July 2022.

One question that emerged at Thursday’s meeting was why two votes were necessary, and why the state had put an extra step in before the public could take their reasons for or against the merger and finally use them in a vote.

“We’ve asked that one too,” said Ayers.

“The board is the elected group that represents the school district,” said Pole, “and my guess is that philosophically, before this vote gets out into the community, the state wants to make sure that the duly elected governing board has at least passed on it.”

Pole said that out of the 13 mergers he’s worked on, he has seen one instance where the school board vote was “yes,” only to be followed by a public “no.”

In the last six years, Fort Edward has seen an enrollment decline from 494 to 396, paired with a drop from 3,136 to 2,831.

In May, Fort Edward was able to alleviate some of the more recent financial issues that were part of the merger discussion getting started, with a school budget approval that restored pre-K, kindergarten, 4th and 5th grade positions that had been cut the previous year.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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