School district may reconsider rejected merger

After its school board voted down a potential merger with the St. Johnsville Central School District

After its school board voted down a potential merger with the St. Johnsville Central School District, Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District residents started making phone calls.

“From what I’m hearing from district residents, a lot of them are planning to visit the board and ask them to revisit that,” said Oppenheim-Ephratah Superintendent Dan Russom. “There are no guarantees that the board will, but from what people are telling me, a lot are asking for the board to reconsider.”

Russom said he’s expecting a large turnout at next week’s board meeting, to be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the school cafeteria.

The board Tuesday voted 4-3 against merging, while St. Johnsville’s board voted 5-0 in favor. Both boards had to approve the merger for it to go before district residents in a Nov. 1 straw vote.

When news of the board rejection came, some residents expressed disappointment that the board decided not to allow the taxpayers the option to make a decision on whether to merge with the nearby and similarly small St. Johnsville district.

“I’ve had people that say ‘I’m not in favor of the merger’ or some that say ‘I am in favor of the merger,’ ” Russom said. “But they want to be able to vote.”

Despite initial word from Capital Region BOCES that a negative vote by the board meant the issue couldn’t be revisited for at least a year, BOCES spokesman Cuyle Rockwell confirmed Friday that since the public never voted on the issue, it can in fact be revisited immediately.

“In the last couple of days, the phone has rung off the hook,” he said. “There evidently is a groundswell of supporters that previously had been quiet, and now they are talking. Mr. Russom has told them if you feel strongly about this, there’s a board meeting on the 20th.”

Oppenheim-Ephratah school board President Glen Blanchard, who voted against the merger Tuesday, said he doesn’t think he would change his mind if supporters of a merger turned out to next week’s board meeting. He has no problem with people voting on the issue, he said, but he doesn’t believe all of the information was given to people that should have been.

“I think there were kind of important things left out of it,” Blanchard said. “It might not make a difference either way, but I just don’t think that we should ask the people to vote on something they don’t have all the information for.”

The information in question is contained in a two-year merger study report completed by Syracuse-based Castallo & Silky-Education Consultants and presented to the respective boards in July.

But Blanchard said important information regarding the condition of St. Johnsville and Oppenheim-Ephratah school buildings was omitted from the final report. And board members found out at the last minute, finalizing his “no” vote.

Representatives of the firm did not return calls Friday.

“The information I’m speaking about was never even shown to our board,” Blanchard said. “The report shows building conditions, and it said Oppenheim was in satisfactory condition and St. Johnsville buildings were unsatisfactory. It went into the final report, but a couple things on this were omitted. I don’t know why it happened, if it was a mistake. But I thought it was kind of an important piece of information.”

He said even if the board made residents aware of this omitted information, he would not change his vote.

St. Johnsville’s representative in the state Assembly, George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, weighed in on the matter Friday, saying the board should not have prematurely stripped the public of its opportunity to vote.

“If the Oppenheim-Ephratah board feels that more clarification is needed, it should make an effort to inform the public and allow them to vote,” Amedore said in a news release.

He called the denial of a merger a “disappointing loss for the educational development of students, athletic programs, and a missed opportunity for both schools to help each other benefit financially at a time when the students need it the most.”

The Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville districts are both facing declining enrollment and reduced state aid. The final merger report found that a consolidated district would help offset both problems.

The district would save $390,000 and be eligible for 98 percent state aid for any construction in the first 10 years of the merger. Additionally, $14 million in additional general operating aid would be given over 14 years.

“School districts in this state are facing increasing pressures to scale back and do more with less, while simultaneously providing quality education to students,” Amedore said. “This merger would satisfy both needs by strengthening the districts’ educational core and reducing the tax burden for residents.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasts considerable financial support for merged districts, Amedore said, and the state is offering tens of millions of dollars of additional school and building aid.

“The groundwork has been laid,” Amedore said. “And I urge both districts to reconsider this merger, putting the students and the long-term health of our school system first and demonstrating their commitment to a great education and quality of life for all.”

Rockwell, of Capital Region BOCES, said that during the merger process there are three issues that need to be addressed. The first are the opportunities that a merger presents. The second are the challenges — leveling up salaries, consolidating transportation, “101 different things,” he said. The third component is what happens if the districts do not merge.

“The reality is, the state’s out of money,” he said, “and it’s not going to miraculously pull it out of the air. So who survives the starvation? All the districts are starving.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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