What’s lost, what’s next, after Fort Edward school merger struck down

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Fort Edward Union Free School District (left) and South Glens Falls Central School District

SOUTH GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – On Wednesday night, a journey several years long came to an end for two school districts.

It’s taken two studies, countless meetings, and a lot of public information. On Wednesday, Fort Edward Union Free School District voted to end talk of a potential merger with South Glens Falls Central School District.

And it came to an end before reaching a public vote.

The vote on the evening of Oct. 6 was to determine whether a cost-saving merger between the two school districts would then go to a pair of public votes, the first of which would have been slated for November.

Boards of education voted in both districts. In South Glens Falls, the decision came back 9-0 in favor of the merger going to those public votes.

In Fort Edward – where the board has heard complaints, concerns, and even a list of names 61 pages long opposing the merger – the result was 4-5 against joining the districts.

“I think there were a few people on that board who voted on an anti-annexation campaign, said For Edward School Board President Thomas Roche on Thursday, “and I think they had their minds made up from the moment they sat down in the chair.”

Roche was one of five board members who voted in favor of moving the merger to the public. When speaking to NEWS10 previously about a 61-page anti-merger petition he was presented last month, he said he felt strongly that the final decision fell into the hands of the community.

South Glens Falls agrees.

“Any proposal this crucial should be decided by our voters.” said South Glens Falls Superintendent Kristine Orr, in the announcement of the merger’s end on Wednesday evening. “While the district was prepared to move forward with this work, we understand that now was just not the right time to proceed.”

In a quote in Orr’s announcement, Roche thanked Orr and South Glens Falls for their cooperation in the lengthy study the two districts participated in, provided by consultant firm Castallo & Silky.

That study promised over $6 million in federal aid for the newly-formed district that Fort Edward would have been incorporated into. That money would have helped both districts in a struggle against declining enrollment.

In Fort Edward, financial constraints in 2020 led to a 2020-21 school budget being rejected twice by voters. That led to the adoption of a contingency budget that cut the school’s sports programs, extracurricular activities and some staff positions.

That situation improved in 2021, but Roche is unsure how long that can last.

Cut 4th- and 5th-grade teachers were brought back, and are being paid with federal funds that will only last for the next two years.

“Being able to find the money to keep those full-time positions after two years is going to be a challenge, for certain,” he said.

Another hit the district took was the elimination of its transportation budget. Roche said he’s heard a lot of support for that to return.

“So we expect there’s support in our budget when we get it out there.”

The road here

Over the summer, Fort Edward voters spoke loud and clear that they saw merging, not financial danger, as a threat to the community they and their children are a part of.

That manifested at the school board’s September meeting, where resident Chris Boucher presented a petition of 726 names, all Fort Edward residents, speaking out against the merger.

At that meeting, and one in August, residents challenged whether access to clubs and sports teams at the much larger South Glens Falls Central School District would actually be a benefit, worrying their kids would instead be lost in the crowd.

The existing Fort Edward school building would have continued use for pre-K, kindergarten and elementary school. After that, students would have attended South Glens Falls buildings.

The details of that change were among many points of information the two districts presented last week, at a joint information session that laid out assurances agreed upon between the two schools.

Now that the merger has been called off, Fort Edward will turn back to face the challenges that led it to start the conversation in the first place.

“Now we, the faculty, administration, the board and the community will move forward to plan for future budgets, policies and initiatives to ensure the children of Fort Edward receive the best we can provide,” said Fort Edward Superintendent Mark Bessen, quoted in Orr’s release.

Bessen did not respond to NEWS10 requests for comment on Wednesday night or Thursday.

Meanwhile, some sports and extracurriculars were happily restored in 2021. Just like with the teachers who are back, though, it’s not clear how long that fortune can last against years of declining enrollment.

Roche said the community that loudly spoke against annexation need to respond to the shutting down of that option by coming out in support of the next one when school budget voting rolls around again in the spring.

Otherwise, it’s anyone’s guess how long it might be until the next tough choice gets made.

“We’re going to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find the best way forward,” Roche said.

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

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