Schenevus debates school merger, dissolution

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Panelists at the Future of Schenevus forum Wednesday at Schenevus Central School, from left, Duncan Davie, chief of staff for Sen. James Seward, R-Milford; Assemblyman Brian Miller, R-New Hartford; Christina Coughlin, assistant commissioner for the state Education Department’s office of school governance, policy, and religious and independent schools; and Greg Beall, district treasurer for Schenevus.

SCHENEVUS — School district taxpayers and community members packed the gym of Schenevus Central School on Wednesday for a forum with district and state officials to discuss the future of the district.

Schenevus Central School District was one of six statewide to be cited in a January report by the New York State Comptroller’s Office as in a state of “significant fiscal stress.”

“This is not a blame game,” said district superintendent Theresa Carlin. “It’s about the kids. It’s about our students, and ensuring what we decide is what’s best for our future.”

Carlin likened the process to the five stages of grieving.

“A year ago there was a lot of denial,” she said; before community members transitioned through the stages of anger and bargaining.

“We’re in a depressive state right now,” Carlin continued. “We just don’t know where we’re heading, but we really need to start moving towards acceptance. With things the way they are, we cannot sustain ourselves as a K-12 school for much longer.”

The district’s foundation aid is underfunded, and the unappropriated fund balance has been depleted over the last six years, Carlin said, amounting to a nearly $700,000 deficit last year. In May, taxpayers passed a $9,049,317 budget — a 1.6% decrease from the previous year — with a tax levy increase of nearly 5%.

“The district’s revenues are inflexible,” she said, noting that the district does not have “the property wealth or the income wealth” to raise taxes enough to cover the deficit.

More than $700,000 was cut from this year’s budget, resulting in larger class sizes, limited class availability and more study halls, Carlin said. The district also began charging for building use by groups outside the school.

“There’s not much we can do for our current position,” she said. “We’re losing staff because of the uncertainty of our future.”

Carlin said the solution preferred by district administrators and board members is to merge with a neighboring district.

State regulations mandate that a merger occur only between districts that are contiguous to each other, she said, and after conversations with representatives from the neighboring districts — Milford, Cherry Valley, Worcester, Oneonta and Charlotte Valley — Schenevus officials found Worcester to be the most favorable match, given the districts’ similar demographics.

“All rural schools are in decline,” said Worcester superintendent Tim Gonzalez, agreeing with the communities’ characterization as “land-rich and cash-poor.” 

“The opportunities just aren’t there anymore,” he said.

“We have the fortunate position of foresight with everything Schenevus is going through,” Gonzalez continued, adding that the district has made adjustments to prevent itself from going down a path similar to Schenevus.

A merger between Schenevus and Worcester could potentially occur as a centralization, Carlin explained; in which a new district would be created with a new superintendent and a new school board.

If an annexation merger were to occur, as would be required if Schenevus sought to merge with Oneonta, a city school district, the school board, administration and policies of the annexing district would remain, and Schenevus families would pay Oneonta taxes, she said.

Merging could potentially increase the academic and extracurricular offerings available to students in both districts, allow for the upgrade of facilities and equipment, decrease taxes and create a more cost-effective administration structure, Carlin said.

Merging with Worcester would bring in almost $11 million in additional state aid over the first 14 years through a state incentive program, she said, and the combined district would be eligible for a 98% building aid ratio, resulting in a 2% local share for any capital projects.

Carlin said she wrote a grant application from the New York state Department of State that would cover about half the cost of conducting a merger study, the first step in the merger process required by the state.

If approved, both Worcester and Schenevus have committed to funding the remaining balance — approximately $15,000 each — and begin the study as early as February, Carlin said.

The feasibility study could take nine months to a year to complete, Carlin said, estimating that “if everything moves progressively,” the districts could merge as soon as July 2021.

“The purpose of the study is to do the research you need to do to answer the question: is this a good idea?” Carlin said.

Following the study, each component district would host a series of three votes on the matter: a positive majority vote from each school board, a majority straw vote by taxpayers and a final, official vote in each community, overseen by the state Education Department.

There are no plans to move forward if the grant application is not approved, Carlin said, but the district is also considering “tuitioning out” students in grades 7 through 12 to one or more neighboring districts.

The Schenevus school board would be responsible for investigating potential tuition offers from other districts and negotiating a three-to-five-year contract, Carlin said. She said the district hopes to cut its educational expenses — currently around $2 million — for its middle- and high-schoolers with a tuition contract.

“They’re still our students, they’re just going to a different building,” Carlin said, likening the arrangement to the tuition agreement with the BOCES district.

Under such a plan, teachers and support staff for grades 7 through 12 would be laid off, Carlin said, but placed on a preferred eligibility list for hiring by the contracted district.

“If we merged, there would be some amount of relief for taxpayers,” said Kelly Gallagher, Schenevus school board president. “Our taxpayers will not have a say in board elections if we tuition out.”

If neither plan is approved, Carlin said, the district could potentially be dissolved.

“The situation would need to be dire,” she said. “We would have to show we’ve done everything else we possibly can. Voting no is not the answer.”

If the district was dissolved, students would be assigned to the school districts closest to their homes, Carlin said. The vacant Schenevus building would be put up for sale, and all the district’s debt and legacy costs would be transferred proportionately to the districts taking on the former Schenevus students. 

“I look around this community and I see people that have been here since the ‘40s and ‘50s,” said Schenevus resident Sandy Salisbury. “I don’t think anybody wants to give up their roots.”

“Ideally, we would all love to remain a K-12 district,” Carlin replied. “However, it’s just not possible.”

“To keep our kids in these communities — I think that would be best for the children,” said Schenevus resident and former district employee Kathi Fredette, speaking in favor of a merger.

A video recording of the meeting and the slideshow presentation will be available on the district website Thursday, Carlin said.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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