The Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District is planning a second merger vote in December even as it prepares a budget for next year that contains hard fiscal numbers that may prompt tough academic choices, a school official said.
The state last week granted a petition request to allow residents of the district to vote again on a proposed merger with the St. Johnsville Central School District. The petition signed by more than 35 district voters went to the state education commissioner in November, said O-E Superintendent Dan Russom.
The vote is scheduled for Dec. 11. Polls will open from noon to 8 p.m. Absentee ballots are available at the district clerk’s office.
What: Referendum on proposed merger of the Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville central school districts
When: Polls open from noon to 8 p.m. Dec. 11
Eligibility: U.S. citizens age 18 or older who have resided in the Oppenheim-Ephratah district since Nov. 11 or earlier are eligible to vote. Advance registration is not required.
If Oppenheim-Ephratah residents approve the merger, the new district would begin operation July 1, 2013.
Only residents of the O-E district will vote for the merger, and they must approve it by a majority. In a vote last year, St. Johnsville residents backed the merger, 461-79, but O-E voters rejected it by a vote of 458-400.
If O-E residents reject it again, Russom said, the district cannot revisit a merger with St. Johnsville.
“This is the final vote. If it does not pass, the merger is not going to happen,” he said.
A merged district would be eligible for $14 million in enhanced aid for 14 years. Russom said the extra aid would allow the new district to stabilize taxes and improve programs. The district could also put some of the money into a reserve fund to fix buildings.
The district is looking to merge with St. Johnsville because O-E is struggling financially, he said.
“Every year is going to be difficult with the [state-mandated] tax cap and dwindling resources,” he said.
Russom presented a tentative budget of $8.6 million for 2013 to the board three weeks ago. The budget projects a $738,000 gap between revenues and expenses and is 3.4 percent higher than the current year’s $8.4 million budget. Russom did not include any change in the proposed tax levy, leaving that decision to the Board of Education.
“Somewhere along the line, we will pose a question to the board: Are you looking to put out a tax increase, and if you are, what will it be?” he said.
O-E voters this year twice rejected the district’s budgets, prompting the board to implement a contingency plan with no increase in the tax levy from the prior year. The first budget’s tax levy exceeded the tax cap, while the second budget’s tax levy was at the cap.
The district’s options in closing the budget gap are limited, Russom said. He said the district has about $500,000 in its fund balance but is also facing projected double-digit increases in employee benefit costs and no spending for any new programs. The proposal also assumes no increase in state aid next year.
The district does have $3.9 million in a capital reserve fund which can be tapped for general operations. Voters would have to approve any use of this money through a separate proposition, which could be part of the budget vote in the spring, Russom said.
The capital reserve fund is designated for repairs to district facilities. He estimates district facilities require approximately $4.5 million in repairs “if we fixed everything.” He said if district residents approve the use of the capital fund for general operations, the district would borrow for repair projects.
The school district has already trimmed its programs and services to the bone, Russom said.
“Our academic program is pretty bare bones. We do not have a lot of fluff in it. We have one elementary teacher per grade level and classes run in the low- to mid-20s,” he said. “We have not talked about layoffs. The board is asking program questions right now.”
The next budget work session is set for 6 p.m. Dec. 8.