A study released last week finds that the Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville School District may need to close the high school, an elementary school or both, to remain financially stable.
Though district officials say it is currently in an “excellent financial situation,” the district is faced with declining enrollment and a surplus of teachers.
“If we keep spending the way we are, in five years we will be in pretty bad shape,” interim Superintendent of Schools Thomas Gallagher said. “After the merger, we didn’t let go of any teachers. The merger allowed us to cut some positions and reduce the budget, [but] we haven’t really done that yet.”
In December 2012, voters in the Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville school districts approved a merger after a contentious campaign. In January 2013, the Oppenheim-Ephratah board suspended that district’s superintendent, Dan Russom, without explanation. In May 2013, the new board of the soon-to-be-merged school district named Laura Lawrence, superintendent of the St. Johnsville district, to be super of the new OESJ district.
In November 2013, the school board put her on paid administrative leave. In April 2014, she resigned with a large contract buyout. The moves were never publicly explained.
In January 2014, the OESJ board appointed Thomas Gallagher acting superintendent. His appointment runs through July.
The district recently appointed Fonda-Fultonville High School Principal David Halloran as superintendent.
The study, conducted by Dr. Paul Seversky of SES Study Team LLC, shows that enrollment in the district will continue to decline over the next 10 years. The study also finds that roughly 18 percent of children living inside district borders attend other public schools.
“We need to look at ways of becoming more efficient with our spending,” Gallagher said. “We are losing about 130 kids every year who choose to attend other public schools.”
The study offers four ways the district can save money and better organize its educational instruction in the next three years.
The first: Close the high school building and serve all grades pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at the Robbins Elementary School and seventh through 12th grade at the current elementary/middle school building, saving the district roughly $906,000.
The second: Close the Robbins Elementary School and operate pre-kindergarten through sixth grade at the current high school building and seventh through 12th grade at the current elementary/middle school building, saving the district roughly $895,000.
The third: Close the current high school and the Robbins Elementary School and use the current elementary/middle school to serve pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, saving the district roughly $1.1 million.
The fourth: Close the current high school and use the Robbins Elementary School for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade and the elementary/middle school building for fifth through 12th grade, saving the district roughly $906,000.
Seversky will present his findings to district officials tonight at the high school. Parents and community members are invited to voice their opinion on the study.
Gallagher said a 36-member committee will be formed to review the study and look at potential scenarios that Seversky hasn’t submitted.
“I think it’s clear that we need to take action shortly,” he said. “The committee will review the study and then the board will make a decision on what action to take.”
OESJ Board of Education member Neil Clark said the findings may hurt people because of their attachment to the high school building.
“It won’t be an easy decision by any means, but the math backs it up,” Clark said. “The decision will be made as a board and we will do what is best for the community and its children.”