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With merger study ended, Fort Edward school board must tackle budget, hiring

FORT EDWARD

The question of whether the South Glens Falls school district should annex Fort Edward pitted neighbor against neighbor in the close-knit Washington County village.

With the Fort Edward Board of Education narrowly voting 5-4 on Wednesday not to go any further with the process, now the community must be put back together.

Board member Ella Collins cited the “toxic” environment in her decision not to put the annexation question out for a referendum.

She criticized the tactics employed by opponents of the referendum — going door to door during the petition drive saying the board is corrupt and calling them “goons and bobble heads” on social media.

They wore shirts that defamed board members’ character and booed people that have a different view from them at meetings.

“I just hope that we can heal and move on for the good of the kids. That’s what we’re here for and not our individual egos,” he said.

Board member James Donahue agreed, saying he did not appreciate the vitriol and the booing and personal attacks at the meetings. These behaviors don’t represent the best of Fort Edward, he said.

“We need to come together in the best interest of our kids. Remember, it’s always Fort Edward against the world,” he said.

What’s next?

Now board members have to put the study behind them and start tackling some issues. On the to-do list is next year’s budget. One of the concerns of board members who supported holding the referendum is about people who were in favor of annexation and whether they would feel disenfranchised. That could cause them to take out their frustration at the ballot box and vote down future school budgets.

Board President Tom Roche said if the 700 people that signed the petition opposing annexation came out and voted in favor of the budget, the district would be in good shape.

At a recent school board meeting, Business Manager Sharlene Petro-Durgan presented a five-year plan for the district.

Finances will be challenging.

After Fort Edward’s budget failed twice in 2020, the district had to go to a contingency budget. Officials had to make cuts to administrative positions, teachers, support staff, instructional materials and supplies and professional development, according to Petro-Durgan.

After the 2021 budget passed, school officials started to restore some of those positions, including teaching positions to full time from part time. It would take about $110,000 to restore the teachers to full time in the subjects of English, social studies, math, science, music and health, according to Petro-Durgan.

The district would need another $78,000 to bring back the deputy treasurer and district clerk; $57,000 to restore bus transportation; and between $52,000 and $104,000 to bring back custodial positions that were lost, according to the presentation.

Altogether, it is about $300,000 to $350,000 that needs to be included in the budget.

Petro-Durgan also presented a chart showing the projected gap between expenses and revenues in the coming years — based upon current staffing levels and state aid estimates.

The gap would be about $110,000 in the 2021-2022 school year and grow to $886,000 by 2025-2026.

Petro-Durgan said the district could tap into its reserves for the first two to three years, but then they would be depleted and the board would have to make cuts.

Finding personnel

The district also has to fill vacant administrative positions. Mark Bessen, former Granville superintendent, is currently serving as interim superintendent after Dan Ward left to take the position as superintendent of Hudson Falls. Former Abraham Wing School Superintendent John Godfrey is the current interim K-12 principal after John Galarneau left to take a position with the Schenectady City School District.

Roche acknowledged that the merger study process has made it difficult to vote on applications.

“It’s been tough,” he said, adding that he wants interested applicants to know that the Fort Edward school district still exists.

Looking ahead

Roche said the board has to get back to work.

“We get back in that board room next month and we figure out a path forward,” he said. As a result of this process, Roche said the community has rallied around the school. “There’s a lot of hometown pride and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Michael Goot covers politics, crime and courts, Warren County, education and business. Reach him at 518-742-3320 or mgoot@poststar.com.

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