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February 28, 2013

Districts hold workshop on possible merger

By Mark Boshnack
The Daily Star

---- — Residents in the Schenevus and Worcester central school districts can participate in the first steps of what could lead to a plan to merge the two schools.

The public is invited to a Planning to Plan Board Workshop from 7 to 9 p.m. today at the Schenevus Central School cafeteria to examine what questions they would like answered with a reorganization study. The cost will not exceed the grant the districts are applying for this month through the state Department of Education.

It’s important that residents become part of the process, Worcester Superintendent William Diamond said. He would need to wait until after the study to discuss such things as busing, staffing, sports teams and school configuration, he said. But with a combined population of 370 at Schenevus and 410 at Worcester, both buildings would be needed, he said. The schools are about five miles apart.

If the grant is approved, the study would begin in fall 2013 and be completed spring 2014, Diamond said. The boards, which already agreed to consider the idea, would vote on the plan, followed by a straw vote by the communities in the fall-winter 2014-15. If that is approved, the plan would go to the state Education Commissioner and a final vote. The new school could be open by July 2015 in a preliminary timeline.

No action will be taken today, he said, but the meeting will be conducted by the SES Study Team, consultants who specialize in such work.

The goal will be to develop a rank-ordered list of priorities, which will be used by the districts as they prepare their grant application, Schenevus Superintendent Thomas Jennings said.

“It will help give us a sense of what’s important to the communities and what the concerns are so residents will have a clear understanding of the issues,” if it gets to a vote, he said.

The economic challenges the districts are facing make action urgent, Jennings said. There have always been educational reasons — it would provide more efficiencies and offerings, he said. In this fiscal crisis, there is nowhere else to go to avoid cutting programs students deserve, such as arts, athletics, advanced placement classes and smaller class sizes in elementary school, Jennings said. 

They are all in danger in the current climate, he said.

The situation is different than when merger has been suggested in the the past, he said. There have been so many articles about the fiscal crisis, “I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone,” Jennings said.

He said the big questions include: Are the districts a good fit for each other? What is the long-term effect on education, finances and the community?

“It is important there is community support,” Jennings said.

While the current economy, including the lack of state aid, might be the “trigger,” Diamond said, the educational advantages the merger could provide for the students are the biggest reason to consider it. 

“That should always be the bottom line,” he said. “It would provide an academic program that is stronger and deeper than we can currently provide.”

It has come up before — the last time in the ’90s, he said. He said he wasn’t in the district then, but in general people object to the idea of losing the community school. With the state cutting funding for the last three years, Diamond said, the community can no longer support the necessary programs under the current situation.

“We’ve been cutting both instructional and non-instructional positions,” he said, and “we believe we are offering the academic program we need. To offer anything less would be unacceptable.”