SOUTH GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – The merger being eyed between Fort Edward Union Free School District and South Glens Falls Central School District has been the subject of a lot of community feedback; some supportive, some confused, and some outright concerned.

On Thursday night, South Glens Falls Superintendent Kristine Orr led a public information session, which Fort Edward has been pushing as a place to find answers and share dialogue, especially to concerned parents who have attended recent school board meetings with comments on why they disagree with the merger.

Making sure both communities know the score was a top priority.

“I think one thing that’s important is we did this study to find out exactly what’s going to happen for both communities,” Orr said at the start of Thursday night’s meeting.

The merger study has been the subject of extensive work by firm Castallo & Silky, who presented a finished report earlier this year. The merger has been explored as both districts have faced enrollment decline. Fort Edward has also been experiencing financial issues that led to the elimination of some positions and extracurriculars during the 2020-21 school year.

Earlier this month, community concerns about how the merger would affect the lives of Fort Edward children led to a 61-page petition against the merger being presented to the school board. The board is set to vote on whether to bring the merger before a public vote next month.

Statements of assurance

Orr started off by running through a list of assurances agreed to ahead of time by both districts. Fort Edward would essentially be absorbed by South Glens Falls, keeping its existing building for Kindergarten through to 5th grade.

Assurances, Orr explained, simply refer to agreements between parties who would be affected by a potential change – such as a merger – before the point where that action happens.

The Fort Edward and South Glens Falls school boards agreed to four assurances:

  • That the merger will be approached in such a way to enhance student opportunities, including adding programs and learning avenues to the lives of Fort Edward students that they had not had before. Also included in this assurance are decisions on how best to spend the over $6 million in federal aid the new district would qualify for.
  • That the South Glens Falls School District would incorporate the existing Fort Edward K-12 building, rather than sending all Fort Edward students to other buildings. Parent concerns were cited in describing this assurance, with Orr saying that she and both boards understood the need to bring Fort Edward kids up with the same hometown feel that their area-local parents once had. Kindergarten through 5th grade would be held at the Fort Edward building, with middle and high school students attending at South Glens Falls buildings.
  • That as many Fort Edward school employees would be kept on as possible after the merger. Orr said that both districts are aiming to not have to lay anyone off, with the exception of one Fort Edward superintendent post, which would be closed as the school joins the district. Orr herself is superintendent for all buildings.
  • That board membership would be open to all. South Glens Falls operates a nine-person student board, and three of those seats would be open if the merger was finalized in 2022, allowing several opportunities for Fort Edward representatives to step into the bigger ecosystem.

Reccomendations from consultants

Upon completing their formal merger study, representatives from Castallo & Silky made a list of recommendations for the operation of the new district, which would be made official for the 2022-23 school year if approved.

Orr laid those recommendations out in detail.

  1. A merged Fort Edward/South Glens Falls school district should annually update enrollment projections to accurately monitor student population.
    • Currently already in practice in both districts
  2. If the merger happens, a committee of elementary teachers and an administrator should be convened as soon as possible to review the existing curriculum and make recommendations for a common core curriculum for grades pre-K-5, including special subjects. Committee should have representatives in both districts.
    • Currently already a common practice for both districts
  3. All middle/high school courses now being offered in both districts should be offered in a merged district, assuming enough enrollment. Course catalogs would be reviewed and the creation of a new one would be a proprity. 
    • This would be a year-2 priority for the 2023-24 school year
  4. More electives should be developed at middle and high school levels in a merged district.
  5. All existing extracurricular activities already offered to South Glens Falls students should be provided to Fort Edward students, and more should be developed.
    • This would be a priority for the 2023-24 school year
  6. New committees on special education and preschool special education would be appointed, with representation from committees of both previous districts. Philosophy and priorities for special education at new district should be identified by new committee. 
  7. All existing elementary school buildings, including current Fort Edward building, should continue operating; all middle and high students would go to South Glens Falls middle and high schools.
    •  “I can tell you, no matter which way I run the numbers, there is not a possibility that the Fort Edward school is closed for kindergarten through 5th grade,” Orr commented on this point, making reference to concerns from the Fort Edward community. She also said that there is presently no reason for either district to believe that fact would change after the 5 years that the merger study projects out to.
  8. If the merger occurs, a transportation plan must be finalized that would incorporate Fort Edward students into the South Glens Falls bus routing system.  
    • Fort Edward Interim Superintendent Mark Bessen commented that transportation options are not currently running at the district, due to staff and budget shortages.
  9. Bus maintance would be completed at South Glens Falls transportation center. 
  10. Soon following a merger, the new school board should negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement to determine terms and conditions of employment for all teachers, including those at Fort Edward. All Fort Edward teacher salaries would be leveled up to meet South Glens Falls salaries in each bargaining unit. South Glens Falls’ Diredctor of Personnel Development would meet with Fort Edward staff members individually to review changes. 
  11. Staffing structure post-merger should be defined at the earliest possible date. South Glens Falls staff recieve tentative assignments on June 10, 2022, which would be the earliest possible completion date. 
  12. If merged, the board of education should closely scrutinize its first budget to ensure that the projected efficiencies are actually achieved following the merger, thus ensuring the local tax relief described in this report. 
    • All towns currently part of South Glens Falls Central School District would be part of all budget votes.
  13. If merged, the new school board should develop a financial plan to ensure long-term fiscal stability for the newly-merged district. That plan should give consideration to the amount of incentive aid used to reduce the tax burden, especially in the first five years after the merger. This should also ensure long-term fiscal stability. 
    • The merged district would receive $49,626,450 in incentive aid over 14 years, $5,223,837 for each of the first five years.
    • South Glens Falls would take on Fort Edward’s capital debt, but changes in tax ratio would cause the new district to see $6 million in savings towards paying that debt off.

What the people want to know

In advance of Thursday night’s meeting, the districts created an online thought exchange, where, interested parties could submit questions and rate questions submitted by others.

As of the meeting, the thought exchange had 137 participants, 125 questions, and 2,880 ratings across them.

The three highest-rated questions were brought up first:

  • “Board meetings that include both districts board members would be useful”
    • Presidents of both school boards were on the meeting, and are both part of the conversation at large.
  • “What expanded opportunities will be provided to the children of Fort Edward?”
  • “I would like to see the long-term plan. 10, 15, 20 years from now, if we were to have the merger? Taxes would be astronomical.”
    • Orr clarified that the 5-year plan outlined in the merger study sets a precedent. Every year, a new projection for the next five years from that point on would be created.

That led to other questions to be selected and discussed.

  • “How many students can be absorbed per grade before the need for more Fort Edward teachers becomes necessary?”
    • Orr explained that South Glens Falls has class averages. Right now, they fall under the maximum in almost every section in the district. The merger study talks about those numbers more than the school district does, and Orr didn’t know whether absorption would happen between buildings. “Yes, the study talks about moving students and things like that, but that’s not a wise move for the students.” A severe shift would be needed to justify any change that drastic, like a drop from 30-40 students to 12.
  • “Will Fort Edward be reevaluated each year? Will Fort Edward elementary school?” 
    • With the current number of students between K-5, that building has to stay open; South Glens Falls’ other elementary buildings wouldn’t have the space to take the community’s students, even if they wanted to.

A number of questions also came in from those worrying about job loss at Fort Edward.

  • “How many FE teachers will lose their jobs?” 
  • “How many staff, not just teachers, will lose their jobs” 
  • “If you consider adding more sections to each grade, you could retain more FE staff if the annexation were to happen. Is this a possibility? Our community would not only be losing our school identity, but also potentially a number of the teachers our kids know and love.”

Other than the interim superintendent, no position at Fort Edward is being marked for absolute elimination. The plan and priority are to keep every teacher, with senior staff getting first priority and any not kept put on a priority hire list for 7 years.

What’s next

Fort Edward and South Glens Falls school boards will come together on Oct. 9 to vote on whether or not the school merger plan will go to the public.

If it does, there will be two more votes ahead of it, both for the public of both districts to weigh in on. The first of those votes would be in November.

If that first vote passes, the boards will have more work ahead of them on staffing, busing, special education, and more, and will result in more specific information on things like who will lose a job and who will have the longest bus ride on a school morning. All of that information will go to the public ahead of the second vote.

If voters say yes a second time, then and only then will the merger be made a reality.

In the meantime, a visual walkthrough of the Fort Edward school building will be completed to examine new ways to use the space. No part of the building would be sold or rented off, but the removal of middle and high school classes from it means new potential uses to benefit the elementary school students there.

Students in South Glens Falls high school will be eligible for all scholarships, regardless of where they are from. That said, Orr pointed out that some elementary buildings have scholarships that are, and will continue to be specific to students from those buildings.

The full meeting, and more information on the merger, can be found at the official merger website.