Fort Edward would maintain its own school building as a K-5 elementary school for at least five years after any merger with South Glens Falls — should it occur — according to an agreement between the two districts announced on Wednesday.
Fort Edward Superintendent of Schools Dan Ward also said that students living in the village would go to the Fort Edward school — unless enrollment is too small to create a section.
Ward made the announcement of these parameters at a joint meeting between the boards of educations of both districts to kick off the study.
“As we value a 21st century education for our students, a successful merger vote will provide resources to enhance student learning opportunities. A merger will also provide an opportunity to realize efficiencies,” he said.
Also as part of the agreement, current Fort Edward school employees will be considered for positions in South Glens Falls, but they will not be guaranteed, according to Ward. Faculty hired by South Glens Falls will be placed on the appropriate step on the schedule.
The employees’ accrued sick time would be carried over to their positions in the South Glens Falls district. Fort Edward workers would receive their insurance under the South Glens Falls contract.
After any possible annexation, Ward said Fort Edward residents would be allowed to run for seats on the South Glens Falls Board of Education. In the event that no one is successfully elected to the board, two members of the Fort Edward community will be appointed as non-voting advisory members to the school board.
Wednesday’s meeting was the first opportunity for both boards to get together since the districts agreed to do the study.
Alan Pole of consulting firm Castallo & Silky outlined the merger study process.
Districts are facing a lot of issues — the COVID-19 pandemic, declining enrollment and revenue challenges, he said.
Pole said a merger study can be a stressful situation. People are very passionate about their schools and change is difficult, he said.
“If we lose the school as the center of our community, we lose our community,” he said, summarizing what he said many residents feel during this process.
To entice school districts to merge, Pole said the state offers generous incentives. For the first five years of the merger, the state provides additional Foundation Aid money, which is calculated by multiplying how much aid the two districts combined get by 40%.
That percentage gradually decreases to zero over a 14-year period. In the case of Fort Edward and South Glens Falls, Pole said that represents nearly $50 million in additional money over that period.
Pole suggested that the districts put about one-third of the money into reserve funds so they can be prepared for when the aid amounts start getting smaller.
“If you just blow this money, all of it, your tax rate in Year 6 and Year 10 and Year 14 is going to be a mess,” he said. “You’re going to need some discipline.”
Some of the money should be used to reduce local taxes, according to Pole.
In addition, new capital projects get a 30% bonus in state aid.
While the consultants are collecting data from the school districts, Pole said there will be an advisory committee consisting of teachers, administrators, parents and community members discussing a series of topics: enrollment, district organization, facilities, staffing, finances, transportation and educational programming.
Pole said the Syracuse-based consultants will use the advisory committee to provide insights that go beyond the hard data.
“We don’t have the local flavor, the local insights. We don’t have the understanding of the local culture in these two districts that might impact options that we are looking at,” he said.
The advisory committee will also play a valuable role in making sure accurate information about the process is circulating in the community.
The meetings would be streamed on the merger study website sites.google.com/sgfcsd.org/fesgfmerger/home and would be able to be viewed by the public.
The work will culminate in an 80- to 100-page report, which will be written in plain language on what the consultants found.
Pole stressed that the report will not offer any recommendation on whether or not to merge.
“We firmly believe that should be a decision left up to the community,” he said. “Our job is to write a comprehensive study that looks at most of the questions that people will have.”
This is a compressed time frame. The goal is to complete the report by April and send it to the state Education Department for its review.
The consultants will present to both school boards in April.
“Each board will make a decision about whether or not to have a public referendum on the question of this merger,” he said.
“If either board decides we don’t even want the community to look at this, the process is over,” he said.
The vote would have to pass in both communities and it is advisory only. If successful, a second binding vote would then take place. The earliest the new district could be formed under this process is July 1, 2022, according to Pole.
Pole suggests that people should relax and let the study take its course and see what it says.