Schenevus, Worcester begin forums ahead of merger vote

Sarah Eames | The Daily Star Panelists representing Schenevus and Worcester schools discuss a proposed merger at the first in-person “Merger Monday” meeting May 10 in the Worcester gym. From left are Otsego-Northern Catskills BOCES Superintendent Catherine Huber, Worcester Central School District Superintendent Tim Gonzalez, Schenevus Central School District Superintendent Theresa Carlin, Schenevus Board of Education President Stacie Haynes and Worcester Board of Education PresidentWilliam Fisher.

WORCESTER — Representatives from Schenevus and Worcester schools met in-person for the first time Monday, May 10, in the districts’ months-long “Merger Monday” series in preparation for an upcoming series of votes to determine whether the schools will proceed with a proposed annexation merger.

Both school boards are set to vote on the proposed merger Tuesday, June 15, before it goes to a vote before both communities Sept. 22.

“Both boards have to vote positively for that to happen,” Schenevus Central School District Superintendent Theresa Carlin said. “If they don’t, the process stops right there.”

The September vote is considered a straw poll, Carlin said, and if the merger is approved by taxpayers in both communities, the matter will go to a binding referendum Dec. 4.

If approved, the merged district would begin operations July 1, 2022.

Carlin and her Worcester counterpart, district Superintendent Tim Gonzalez, joined their respective school board presidents, Stacie Haynes and Bill Fisher, in discussing the schools’ shared values as outlined by members of both communities throughout the merger process.

“We really appreciated being able to work on a statement of shared values, given that it is an annexation,” Haynes said. “I think over the last year or so, we’ve been working together and building relationships and learning to get to know each other and trust each other and making the shared values feel even stronger.”

Terms of the proposed merger include expanding the Worcester school board from five members to seven beginning in 2022, with the addition of the two extra seats to be voted on alongside the binding referendum in December.

Both boards committed to preserving employment for all staff if the schools go through with the merger, relying on retirement and natural attrition to consolidate the new district’s staff.

“The study showed that all positions would be needed in both buildings, even if people might not be doing exactly what they’re doing now,” Carlin said. “Nobody would lose their job, but as people retired or moved on to other positions, it would be up to the administration and the board if they want to replace that individual.”

Schenevus only has one section of each of the elementary grade levels, Carlin said, and Worcester has a few more. Combining both school populations would mean that not every teacher is needed at every grade level, but would free them up to administer gifted and talented or other enrichment programs that ordinarily would not be available in either district.

“We don’t want the same,” Carlin said. “If you just have the same, what’s the point of bringing the two schools together? You want to have more opportunities.”

“That’s what this is really all about with the potential merger, to provide our students with access to more athletics, academics and other activities and to keep class sizes at 22 or fewer,” Huber said. 

The study showed that both buildings would be needed to house the combined student population, Huber continued. The Schenevus building, retaining its name in tribute to the district, could be used as an elementary school and Worcester as a secondary school.

If the merger is not approved and both schools continue independently, Schenevus is on track to financial and educational insolvency within just a few years, Carlin said.

Regardless of whether the district voluntarily dissolves or is forcibly dissolved by the state, the result would be the same: the student body would be divided among the neighboring districts, and a proportionate share of Schenevus debt would be similarly allocated, with the majority of both students and debt going to Worcester.

“There’s a perception that Schenevus has failed or Schenevus has to be saved, and there may be a perception that we’re coming under Worcester’s wing because Worcester may be superior,” Haynes said. “From what I’ve learned from being on the board and through the merger study, our districts are actually very, very similar.”

Noting that many rural upstate school districts find themselves operating in structural deficits to keep up with various mandates passed down by the state, Haynes said that “Every year, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fill those deficits without really impacting our taxpayers that are making this possible.”

“The decision was made because Schenevus is at a bigger disadvantage, financially, at the moment, and some of that is poor decision-making and some of that is foundation aid,” she continued. “There’s a lot of pride in Schenevus, and there’s a reason for that.”

Haynes said she and her fellow board members initially struggled to come to terms with the structure of the merger, proposed as an annexation instead of a consolidation.

“We didn’t want the community to think that we had given up on the school district when that’s the last thing we want to do,” she said. “We want to have an outstanding school district for our students, but we need to look at what is financially possible.”

The merged district would be eligible for around $11 million in state incentive aid, plus additional building aid and cost savings from consolidating services, Carlin said. 

Also included in the districts’ shared values was the use of merger aid to improve educational opportunities by offering more electives and extracurricular activities.

Using high school physics as an example, Gonzalez noted that Worcester offers a class every other year and Schenevus offers it every year, but with a very small class size, Gonzalez said. Combining both classes would allow physics to be held every year with a more substantial class size and also free up the space and ability for the addition of a new class, possibly an AP physics or environmental science class.

Officials from both districts commended the involvement of Schenevus and Worcester students alike in the merger evaluation process. Gonzalez noted that a March panel of students featured discussion about hopes for increased leadership and extracurricular opportunities under a merged district, and Carlin observed an instinct among the Worcester students to ensure that their Schenevus counterparts would feel welcome and represented in a merged district.

Discussions about a new school name, colors and mascot could be left to the students to lead, Gonzalez said.

He recalled a similar process he oversaw at the Arizona school district where he served as superintendent before coming to Worcester: the students, determined to change their mascot and colors, launched their own petitions, organized with the student council and presented to the principal and the school board.

“It was a grassroots student movement,” he said. “As an educator, I’m proud to see those things happening because it means they’re using the system the way it’s intended to be.”

Visit mscsw.org for more information about the merger study and timeline.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213.

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