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What you need to know for 01/21/2018

Merging: Oppenheim-Ephratah, St. Johnsville tackle the details

Merging: Oppenheim-Ephratah, St. Johnsville tackle the details

Sophomore John Vicciorelli has more power than the average St. Johnsville student. He and a handful

Sophomore John Vicciorelli has more power than the average St. Johnsville student. He and a handful of other kids are charged with crafting the identity of their freshly merged school district.

“It’s a little weird to be in charge of something,” he said.

A merger between St. Johnsville and Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School Districts has been in the works for a long time. St. Johnsville voters approved the merger last year by a 6-to-1 majority. O-E voted down the first proposal, then OK’d a merger by just 19 votes in December.

The new district is set to bring an extra $1.4 million in state aid, improving extracurricular activities for the students of both schools, but there’s just one problem. The school colors clash terribly.

The red and white of the O-E Hawks look out of place against the purple and gold of the St. Johnsville Saints.

“The idea is to come up with something completely different,” he said.

At the beginning of the month, one student was voted by each grade level in each of the existing districts to come together and negotiate new colors and a fresh mascot.

Vicciorelli sat down Thursday morning with his fellow representatives, ninth-grader Kelsey Lovett and eighth-grader Abby Mosher, along with their art teacher Sara Thibodeau to discuss ideas thus far.

Over a recent video chat with O-E students, a few basic colors were batted around.

Some preferred red, black and silver, while others lobbied for an orange, navy blue and white motif.

Of course, all of this is very tentative after just one meeting. Thibodeau expects weeks of deliberation followed by a district-wide vote. Even so, the kids are treating their duty with a gravity worthy of public office.

It weighted particularly heavily on Mosher.

“We could grow up and have kids that come to this school,” she said. “They’ll know it as the place we made it.”

Lovett holds mini-advisory sessions at her cafeteria table, collecting suggestions for her constituents.

“I’ve heard some pretty awful ones,” she said. “Someone said our colors should be neon pink and teal. I don’t think we want to sabotage our new district.”

Even the elementary kids are stepping up. One young boy did a mountain of research on the area and suggested the new mascot be a pioneer.

Evidently an early pioneer named Jacob Zimmerman founded both Oppenheim and St. Johnsville. His distinctly old-school look would represent the districts’ common ancestry.

Other mascot suggestions include bears and wolves.

In all their discussion, one thing was clear. None were concerned about the merger. All heavily into sports, a program that’s been merged for quite some time, they were used to the idea.

Lovett admitted to some tension when sports were first combined, “but now it’s just something that’s happening.”

School identity

Most resistance to the merger, according to O-E District Clerk Anna O’Connell, comes from adults.

“We don’t really have a city center,” she said. “You drive through our district and there are fields and cows and the school and that’s it.”

With few places to go and things to do in the area, locals use the O-E school gym and walk the halls. Concerts are big events. The complex is a source of community identity, and some fear once the merger is complete it will be shut down.

Though both school complexes will be used under the current plan, Hamilton Fulton Montgomery BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel, who was put in charge of coordinating the merger, said parents are right to consider the loss of their own distinct school identity.

“The communities will lose a piece of themselves,” he said, “but it’s worth it for the students.”

For years, both schools have been on what Michel calls a “subsistence diet,” getting just enough state aid to stay open but not enough to improve. The new district will get all the state and local money previously netted by the two separate districts, plus an extra $1.4 million in mandated state aid each year, tapering off over the next decade.

That extra money will allow the new district to fund things such as sports, music and art classes.

“It will also keep property taxes pretty level over the next 10 years,” Michel said.

It was that extra state aid that finally tipped the scales for O-E residents.

“I just wanted to see more put into the school,” said O-E Parent Teacher Association President Holly Brundage.

She voted for the merger to give her two kids, 8-year-old Josie and 11-year-old Jeb, a chance to learn certain non-core skills.

“Last year Josie couldn’t take art,” she said, “and they cut the technology elective.”

Another O-E mother Marcia Watson said property taxes didn’t cross her mind when deciding to vote for the merger.

“I was just thinking about the quality of education my kids should receive,” she said.

The Plan

As for the nitty-gritty details of the merger, Michel has a plan.

Right now, 312 students are taught, bused and cleaned up after by about 75 O-E staff members while St. Johnsville has 441 students and about 100 staff.

Instead of handling all grades in two distinct complexes less than seven miles apart, students will be split along grade lines. Each school will keep their own elementary programs, but O-E will handle all middle school classes and St. Johnsville will become the high school.

The combined sports program will also be divided by grade with modified sports played at O-E and the rest at St. Johnsville.

The resulting teams will compete under the new school colors and replace St. Johnsville’s slot in Section II.

All existing debt and surpluses will be combined.

Michel said a lot of the decisions are still up in the air. A new budget needs drafting and redundant positions, like the two current district superintendents, need to be narrowed down. None of that can happen until the new joint school board is elected March 19.

Despite the difficulties inherent in school mergers, he said to expect more of them in the future. In the past two years, a few other districts considered merging. Mayfield/Northville and Wells/Lake Pleasant merger proposals were both voted down.

“Mayfield and Northville really should have merged,” Michel said. “To stay afloat at their current rate, they’ll have to exceed the property tax levy cap, which will also get voted down by the public.”

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. indirectly agreed with Michel in his 2013-14 budget testimony on Jan. 29.

“In light of fiscal constraints and declining enrollments, many school districts are facing educational insolvency or are at risk of not meeting their fiscal obligations,” he said at the time, encouraging districts to regionalize.

“St. Johnsville and O-E have done a good thing,” Michel said. “They’ve made a survival plan.”

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