Split board votes scuttle possible school merger

The day after the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District’s Board of Education voted down a poten

The day after the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District’s Board of Education voted down a potential merger with the nearby St. Johnsville Central School District, St. Johnsville Superintendent Ralph Acquaro says an opportunity was missed.

“I genuinely think that it probably would have passed if it had gone to residents,” Acquaro said. “I mean, once people really have enough information, they generally make the right choices. That’s what a democracy is about, and controlling information is detrimental.”

The school boards voted Tuesday night on whether to allow a merger between the two school districts to go before their respective residents in a Nov. 1 straw vote. Oppenheim-Ephratah’s board voted 4-3 against merging, while St. Johnsville’s board voted unanimously in favor of merging.

After a two-year merger study conducted by Syracuse-based Castallo & Silky-Education Consultants, the boards of education could have moved the idea forward to allow residents the opportunity to vote on a combined school.

“The benefit was to both communities, because you’re able to maintain a full and valid educational program locally,” Acquaro said. “I’m not sure that’s going to be able to happen now. They really had an opportunity to grab the brass ring, and the way I look at it, Oppenheim defected.”

The board vote was the first step in a process that could have culminated in a new, single district with more academic programs, expanded curriculum, stabilized property taxes and fiscal savings for both schools.

But Oppenheim-Ephratah’s board didn’t feel the public would have had enough information or the correct information to make a well-informed vote, said O-E Superintendent Dan Russom.

“I work for the board, and whatever their decision is, I accept it and am ready to move on,” he said. “It was a very emotional issue. A lot of people expressed the sentiment that they were in favor of it and wanted to move forward, and others were very clearly against it. The board made their decision based on what they felt was right.”

A final merger report presented in July found that a merged school would save $390,000 and receive higher state aid. Construction in the first 10 years of the merger would be eligible for 98 percent state aid. And an additional $14 million in general operating aid would be given over 14 years for improvements.

But while St. Johnsville school officials and residents were enthusiastic about incentive aid to bolster a merged district’s financial viability, Russom said Oppenheim-Ephratah’s board was skeptical that the state would come through with any aid.

“People against the merger felt that there was no guarantee that the state was going to come up with that money, especially considering the current financial situation in New York state,” he said. “We gave them our best guess, which is that building and incentive aid has always been paid, but a lot of people questioned that, and it was very difficult to overcome.”

Tuesday’s board vote was open to the public, where longtime residents and only a few students turned out to make their voices heard.

“I think there were more people that supported not putting it forward to a vote,” Russom said, “but everybody had their opportunity to express any opinion they wanted at the time. It was really more just listening to the public.”

The schools — which already share sports teams and several assemblies and events — are facing declining enrollment. St. Johnsville enrolled 448 students this past year, a decline of 4 percent from five years ago. Oppenheim-Ephratah enrolled 347 students, a decline of 14 percent in the same time.

Categories: Schenectady County

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