What’s lost, what’s next, after Fort Edward school merger struck down

Education News

Fort Edward Union Free School District (left) and South Glens Falls Central School District

SOUTH GLENS FALLS, N.Y. (NEWS10) – On Wednesday night, a journey several years-long came to an end for two school districts.

It’s taken two studies, countless meetings, and a lot of public information. On Wednesday, Fort Edward Union Free School District voted to end talk of a potential merger with South Glens Falls Central School District.

And it came to an end before reaching a public vote.

The vote on the evening of Oct. 6 was to determine whether a cost-saving merger between the two school districts would then go to a pair of public votes, the first of which would have been slated for November.

Boards of education voted in both districts. In South Glens Falls, the decision came back 9-0 in favor of the merger going to those public votes.

In Fort Edward – where the board has heard complaints, concerns, and even a list of names 61 pages long opposing the merger – the result was 4-5 against joining the districts.

“Any proposal this crucial should be decided by our voters.” said South Glens Falls Superintendent Kristine Orr, in the announcement of the merger’s end on Wednesday evening. “While the district was prepared to move forward with this work, we understand that now was just not the right time to proceed.”

In a conversation last month with NEWS10, Fort Edward School Board President Thomas Roche expressed his own feeling that the merger should go public. In a conversation that started around the 61-page, anti-merger petition he had been presented earlier that week, Roche said that the community that clearly felt strongly about the merger deserved to have their opinions known.

“If we don’t put it out to the public, and voters rights to be heard are suppressed, I fear that future budgets may have some difficulty, because people may say ‘Wait a minute here, you didn’t let me vote on this,’” he said in that interview.

Roche did not return a request for comment on the merger’s end on Wednesday night or Thursday but did provide a quote in Orr’s announcement. In it, he thanked Orr and South Glens Falls for their cooperation in the lengthy study the two districts participated in, provided by consultant firm Castallo & Silky.

That study promised over $6 million in federal aid for the newly-formed district that Fort Edward would have been incorporated into. That money would have helped both districts in a struggle against declining enrollment.

In Fort Edward, financial constraints in 2020 led to a 2020-21 school budget being rejected twice by voters. That led to the adoption of a contingency budget that cut the school’s sports programs, extracurricular activities and some staff positions.

Even so, over the summer, Fort Edward voters spoke loud and clear that they saw merging, not financial danger, as a threat to the community they and their children are a part of.

That manifested at the school board’s September meeting, where resident Chris Boucher presented a petition of 726 names, all Fort Edward residents, speaking out against the merger.

At that meeting, and one in August, residents challenged whether access to clubs and sports teams at the much larger South Glens Falls Central School District would actually be a benefit, worrying their kids would instead be lost in the crowd.

The existing Fort Edward school building would have continued use for pre-K, kindergarten and elementary school. After that, students would have attended South Glens Falls buildings.

The details of that change were among many points of information the two districts presented last week, at a joint information session that laid out assurances agreed upon between the two schools.

Now that the merger has been called off, Fort Edward will turn back to face the challenges that led it to start the conversation in the first place.

“Now we, the faculty, administration, the board and the community will move forward to plan for future budgets, policies and initiatives to ensure the children of Fort Edward receive the best we can provide,” said Fort Edward Superintendent Mark Bessen, quoted in Orr’s release.

Bessen did not respond to NEWS10 requests for comment on Wednesday night or Thursday.

Meanwhile, some sports and extracurriculars were happily restored in 2021, but it’s not clear how long that fortune can last against years of declining enrollment.

As of the failed 2020-21 budget votes last year, Fort Edward had been eyeing cutting the school’s pre-kindergarten program due to a lack of enrollment.

Wednesday’s decision didn’t provide any look into what not merging will mean for the school, or how long it might be until the next tough choice gets made.

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