WORCESTER — The Schenevus and Worcester boards of education held a joint meeting Wednesday to hear a presentation and comments on a proposal to merge the two districts.
Alan Pole and Deb Ayers, consultants with the Syracuse-based firm Castallo & Silky, presented an overview of the merger study, for which both districts were granted in December a shared $25,000 state grant to conduct.
Worcester Superintendent Tim Gonzalez noted at the beginning of the meeting that the presentation was based on the assumption that the Worcester school board would join Schenevus in formally approving the merger initiative.
“This conversation about merging is one that’s happening all across New York state,” Pole said. “Many school districts are saying we have to reinvent ourselves — our model for offering schools is not sustainable, so we’re going to look at a possible merger. We have to figure out some way to do business differently, because this model is just not sustainable.”
“You should know that there’s nothing wrong,” he continued. “This conversation is going on in so many places across New York state.”
The study is intended to “paint a clear picture of each district so that its neighbor has a good understanding of the conditions it brings to the merger,” Pole said, and will cover six primary aspects: student enrollment, academic programs and extracurricular activities, facilities, transportation, staffing and finance.
“We are here with no bias, no agenda,” Pole said. “We don’t push merger and we don’t discourage merger — we’re here to be objective.”
Pole contended that merging the two districts may provide additional course offerings for students, upgraded facilities and equipment, a more cost-effective administrative structure, consolidated support functions and a reduction in taxes.
“Most people feel the clash of data and emotion,” Pole said. “Sometimes the data looks bad, and sometimes the emotions win out, even if the data is good.”
He acknowledged that reorganization may be difficult, as residents in each district fear losing their local identities and already believe that the communities are incompatible.
“Our school is the center of our community,” Pole said. “Even though the number of kids has declined in our school district, the school remains the heartbeat of our community, and we can’t imagine losing the identity that our school district brings to our community and its residents.”
The study will provide objective information on adding classes or reducing staff, building configurations, adding bus routes and drivers, calculating potential savings in staff costs and assessing the overall financial impact of a merger, Pole said.
“There’s not going to be a definitive answer for every question that comes up,” he said.
Outside the scope of the study are the name, color and mascot for the new district, identifying classes to be added or staff to be cut, developing bus routes, determining when staff savings might be realized and making financial decisions.
“We believe these are the decisions the locally merged school districts should make,” Pole said. “We’re not going to tell you where to spend every dollar.”
The final results of the study will not include a recommendation as to whether or not a merger should occur, Pole said.
“Our job is to provide the data,” he said. “We are absolutely committed to the idea that this is your decision.”
If approved by both parties in the imminent future, the study could begin as early as April and wrap up by November, Pole said. According to his tentative timeline, the study findings would be reviewed by the New York state Department of Education in December and presented to both boards by February 2021.
Pole recommended each community discuss the issue and share information publicly throughout the spring before each school board votes on the matter in June 2021.
“Either board can say ‘we don’t want to go any further’ and it’s over,” Pole said.
Pending approval by both school boards, the merger would go to an advisory referendum in each community in September, and if passed, a final referendum in December. The newly merged district would begin operations by July 1, 2021, in accordance with state law.
“It’s not perfect on July 1,” Pole said, noting that the new school board and teachers’ association may still be negotiating a contract.
A previous proposal to negotiate a tuition agreement between the two districts was dropped last week. In a Jan. 16 letter to the Worcester community, Gonzalez explained that an investigation by the district’s legal experts yielded “too many unknown variables to be adequately prepared for the 2020-2021 school year,” noting also some “negative effects on personnel.”
Schenevus Superintendent Theresa Carlin said she had been contacted by officials from both Charlotte Valley and Milford central school districts offering to discuss the possibility of a tuition agreement, but added that if merging with Worcester looks to be feasible, Schenevus will likely not consider tuitioning out its students to another district during the merger study or process.
“Schenevus is focused on the best interests for our kids,” Carlin said.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.