Three years after the Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville central school districts merged, the combined district has improved its fiscal situation and stabilized the tax rate. But the merger has failed to accomplished its most important goal — helping the students, according to Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES Superintendent Patrick Michel.
District officials and parents don’t disagree.
“I don’t think the merger has helped the kids yet at all,” said Holly Brundage, treasure of the OESJ Parent Teacher Association. “We seem to forget that we are here for the kids, and there seems to be a lot of political stuff with the board. The kids seem to be working well together, but the parents can’t come together.”
As part of the merger, the state agreed to pay the new district roughly $14 million over a 15-year span, concluding in 2027. The district also gets 95 percent aid from the state on any new construction.
Michel, who served as interim superintendent after the merger, says the district has not taken advantage of any of the additional funding and says the school board is still working through “old politics.”
“They haven’t invested money in new programs since the merger,” he said. “They have the opportunity to create a flagship district for the region. They get 95 percent aid on all new construction. They can create anything they want and it’s all paid for. They are just starting the conversation now, but they really should have started it a few years ago.
“Those new programs and facilities haven’t happened for the kids. When I spoke to the kids, they said they feel that they haven’t benefited from the merger.”
In the two years after the 2012 merger, two superintendents came and went without much explanation.
In December 2012, voters in the Oppenheim-Ephratah and St. Johnsville school districts approved a merger after a lengthy campaign. The next month, 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 head the merged district. Six months later, the school board put her on paid administrative leave. In April 2014, she resigned with a large contract buyout.
None of the moves were ever publicly explained.
In January 2014, the OESJ board appointed Thomas Gallagher acting superintendent, an appointment that runs through July. The board recently appointed Fonda-Fultonville High School principal David Halloran to take over for Gallagher in August.
Some board members are more optimistic about the district’s future with a new superintendent and believe the merger’s goals will be achieved in the coming years.
“The merger itself achieved a big goal by bringing more like-minded students together,” said Neil Clark, a vocal board member. “We have the opportunity to do great things for students. With help from Mr. Gallagher, we have established goals on the board, which we have been working towards, and have laid the foundation of the new district for years to come.”
A study released last month shows the district must close one of its three buildings to remain financially stable. The study also shows the district must let go of 10 teachers who are not needed post-merger.
Conducted by Paul Seversky of SES Study Team LLC, the study based its recommendations on predictions of declining enrollment over the next 10 years. The district has formed a 36-member focus group that will help the board make the decisions.
As the board is faced with criticism from the public, Gallagher expressed concern it will make the “popular” decision to keep all buildings open and not lay off any employees. He said the three communities have not yet come together ,and the district will have a difficult time moving forward until that gap is bridged.
“There are groups of board members that are operating with their own agendas, and people have to come together instead of breaking apart,” he said. “That is the only way this will work.
Board President Renee Swartz believes the district can be a model for others around the state, but the decision to close a school will not be an easy one.
“I am hoping with the help of the community focus group and the study, we are able to make an informed decision based on the facts, ideas and ultimately what will keep us financially stable for years to come, to be able to provide the best possible education for our children,” Swartz said.
Another board member, Susanne Sammons, said it still isn’t clear everyone knows this is one district and feels her colleagues aren’t always working towards a common goal.
“I just pray that the right things are done for the district and the community,” she said. “That’s all I can do.”