FORT EDWARD — As the Fort Edward school district faces a declining tax base and fiscal challenges, school officials announced Wednesday that it has agreed to conduct a pre-merger study to examine the benefits and drawbacks of dissolving and being annexed into the South Glens Falls Central School District.
Fort Edward Superintendent of Schools Daniel Ward said the preferred option would be for the Fort Edward Union Free School District to continue its present configuration, but school officials have to consider all possibilities.
“It’s a great school. We have great staff that do fantastic things for kids every day, day in and day out, and we have a really supportive community. I’m sure it will cause concern for some people, but again, we’re just looking at this study of a hypothetical annexation to get as much information as we can to do long-range planning,” he said.
The district lost a significant amount of its tax base when the dewatering plant closed after the completion of General Electric’s Hudson River dredging project. The assessment for the old dewatering plant property, which is owned by WCC LLC, was reduced by more than $60 million, according to Ward. That results in a $1.2 million loss in revenue for the school district.
WCC is looking to settle its tax assessment case, but the lowered assessment is going to result in a big financial hit to the district.
Ward said that as the district was having its discussions about merger partners, South Glens Falls came up because it is one of two districts contiguous to Fort Edward. Hudson Falls is the other.
Ward said South Glens Falls school officials have been very receptive to exploring this process.
“Certainly there’s financial considerations, but the conversation always starts with what’s good for our students?” he said.
Castallo & Silky will conduct the pre-merger study, which will address enrollment projections, instructional and extracurricular programming, finance, facilities, transportation, staffing, expected tax rates and state aid, according to a news release.
The study, which costs $5,500 for each school district, will be conducted throughout the winter. Results are expected to be released to the public in June. Each district will receive aid to offset the cost of the study. Fort Edward will receive 71 percent aid, while South Glens Falls will receive 62 percent aid.
Ward said the district has tried hard not to cut the instructional program in the midst of fiscal challenges. In last year’s budget, it reduced its school psychologist from full-time to part-time and cut a couple bus driver/cleaner positions in the last couple years. There are not too many areas from which to cut.
The district also has been holding off on hiring a permanent junior-senior high school principal after Thomas McGurl left in June 2017 to become superintendent of the Granville Central School District. Mark Doody filled the position for the 2017-18 school year, and Sam Ratti is serving as the interim principal this year.
Fort Edward, which has about 500 students, had initially sought out Hudson Falls as a partner. However, Hudson Falls did not want to contribute $5,000 toward the cost of a pre-merger study.
A study by the Capital Area School District Association found that a merger between Fort Edward and Hudson Falls would qualify the combined district for $44 million in special reorganization aid over the next 14 years and receive 95 percent state reimbursement for building projects.
That study also found that the tax rate for Fort Edward residents would drop by $5.39 per $1,000 of assessed value and increase by 84 cents for residents of the Hudson Falls school district.
Ward said Wednesday that this study with South Glens Falls does not take a potential partnership with Hudson Falls off the table.
“We just want to have all of our options out in the open,” he said.
South Glens Falls Superintendent of Schools Kristine Orr said Ward had reached out to Jon Hunter, who was then serving as interim superintendent, on a potential study.
Orr said that this is not as lengthy as a full merger study, but allows the districts to get a sense of whether this makes financial sense and could benefit students and taxpayers.
“We hope to get an initial draft of it back in about 3 to 4 months, depending on how quickly they get the information they are looking for, and we want to present it to our June board meeting if possible,” she said.
If both districts decide to go forward then a full-blown study would be required, and it would have to be approved by voters in both districts. Under an annexation, Fort Edward would dissolve and be absorbed into the 3,100-student South Glens Falls Central School District.
Orr said this is a slow process, and it is important to get all the information. She added that her district wants to do whatever it can to support Fort Edward in this process.
“We want to make sure they’re getting the best education possible,” she said.
Orr said it is too early to talk about job cuts or specific changes.
Both boards are set to vote formally on going forward with the pre-merger study at their respective meetings this month. Fort Edward will meet on Monday at 6:30 p.m. in the superintendent’s conference room and South Glens Falls will meet on Dec. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Moreau Elementary School.
School mergers have been unsuccessful locally. Voters in 2013 rejected for the third time a proposal for the Abraham Wing School to be annexed into the Glens Falls City School district.
In 2000, a similar effort to merger Hudson Falls and Fort Ann was defeated by voters in both districts.
This past Tuesday, voters in the Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis school districts agreed to merge.