CLARIFICATION: Edited to clarify the timing of Minerva's talks with Johnsburg as more recent, after years of looking into other options.
Citing a desire to continue providing opportunities for student-athletes to play interscholastic sports, the Minerva Central School Board of Education recently approved an all-sports merger with Johnsburg, beginning with the 2019-20 school year.
That will mean the end of the Minerva-Newcomb Mountaineers sports merger that has existed since 1993, which leaves Newcomb without a partner.
Skip Hults, Superintendent of Schools for Newcomb, said the school board asked Minerva for a one-year extension of the Minerva-Newcomb merger to look into redesigning the sports program, but was turned down.
“If we had an extra year, I think we would’ve had more time to see how it’s going to impact our budget and investigate new mergers,” Hults said. “For us it’s very hard to merge.”
However, Minerva officials deemed the move necessary because of declining enrollments at the two tiny Adirondack schools.
“We’re less able to consistently put full teams on the field or on the court,” said Timothy Farrell, the Superintendent of Schools at Minerva. “The problem is getting an adequate number of players, and it’s getting worse, not better. ... It’s consistently not possible for Minerva to have its own sports program, even with the merger with Newcomb, and we don’t see that changing. So this is really out of necessity.”
The Minerva board approved the merger at its meeting last Thursday. The Johnsburg Board of Education is expected to pass the merger at its meeting Tuesday, Johnsburg Superintendent of Schools Michael Markwica said.
“We’re both having a hard time fielding teams — us alone and them with the merger,” Markwica said. “We only had six players on our boys modified basketball team. Our girls soccer team that did so well last fall had 13 players — one girl got hurt, so we played with 12 all season.”
“It’s more difficult in the fall and spring — you need 11 players in soccer, in baseball and softball you need nine,” said Farrell, who said the softball team had eight players last spring. “You have a choice — give up on traditional sports and go to non-traditional sports, or look into merging with other programs.”
The merger decision culminates months of discussion between the neighboring districts. The Minerva and Johnsburg schools — located in Olmstedville and North Creek, respectively — are only about 6 miles apart, so a merger seems natural from a geographical perspective.
Farrell said because of declining participation numbers Minerva had been exploring other options, including alternative sports, for several years. He said the Johnsburg option came up more recently because the Jaguars were beginning to struggle with low numbers.
“It’s a benefit to us just having a larger pool of students to play sports, which will lead to more competitive teams and a better experience for the student-athletes,” Markwica said.
The numbers speak loudly. Minerva has 95 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Newcomb has about 85 students in K-12, including 16 international students in the high school. Johnsburg is much larger, with about 330 students from pre-K through 12th grade. All three schools are in Class D, the state’s smallest classification for interscholastic sports.
Farrell said Minerva’s current enrollment is about half what it was 25 years ago, when it first merged with Newcomb.
“Like so many other schools across the state, we’re fighting declining numbers,” Farrell said. “Everybody is feeling it in the (Adirondack) Park.”
Farrell said the merger between Johnsburg and Minerva will ideally stabilize the numbers in team sports, and open up more opportunities for Minerva students. Johnsburg is merged with North Warren — about 15 miles away in Chestertown — for golf, cross country and Nordic skiing, and Markwica said it plans to keep those mergers.
Markwica said this full-program merger is new territory for Johnsburg. The Jaguars have always had their own athletic program, aside from recent single-sport mergers. Coaches, uniforms, practice and game sites need to be discussed. Minerva, however, has the experience.
“We were the pioneers in an actual full-athletic-program merger,” Farrell said.
The decision leaves Newcomb — located 21 miles up Route 28N from Minerva, in the High Peaks region — without a partner. Newcomb does have the international student program, which has bolstered some of the numbers for the Minerva-Newcomb teams.
“The international program is the only reason we can have our own sports program — without them, I don’t think we would have a sports program,” said Skip Hults, Newcomb’s Superintendent of Schools.
Newcomb’s closest neighbor is Long Lake, about 15 miles to the west, but Long Lake has been merged with Indian Lake since 2007. Indian Lake is about an hour from Newcomb by bus, which Hults said makes a three-way merger unlikely. A merger with Schroon Lake — 45 minutes to the east, but over a road that is treacherous in winter, Hults said — was also discussed.
“As isolated as Minerva is, Newcomb is more so,” Farrell said.
Asked about the potential for adding Newcomb to the merger between Minerva and Johnsburg, Markwica said distance — 26 miles from North Creek — is a hindrance and they had received no formal request from Newcomb.
Hults said Newcomb is looking into alternative sports.
“If we can’t do baseball and softball in the spring, we have a golf course in Newcomb, we can do tennis, we can do gymnastics, we have an excellent archery club,” he said. “So we’ll be looking at it over the next couple of months.”
Farrell said the decision to break up the athletic partnership between Minerva and Newcomb was not easy. The school districts will continue to share transportation, education programs and bookkeeping services.
“It affects Newcomb very directly, but we feel it’s the right decision for Minerva,” Farrell said. “It’s been a pretty painful process. ... We understand that it may well put Newcomb in a compromised position.”
“We don’t fault Minerva — they had to do what was best for them,” Hults said. “The merger was going to end eventually. We’re all getting smaller and it’s more and more difficult to maintain athletic programs.
“On the other hand, while it was a shock, it’s energized the community,” Hults added. “There’s a lot of excitement about going back to the Newcomb Huskies.”