NEW LEBANON – The New Lebanon and Chatham school boards met last week to discuss applying for a state grant to study a merger of their two districts.
What they have in mind is money from the state Education Department to fund a year-long data collection project ending with a report on a combined district. A merger report, however, does not automatically lead to a merger. A formal merger proposal would have to receive the approval of both boards and a majority of the voters in both the districts as they presently exist.
Board members had several question for the superintendents of both districts, Cheryl Nuciforo of Chatham, and Karen McGraw of New Lebanon, at the January 25 meeting in the New Lebanon junior/senior high school cafeteria. And the boards decided to meet again before voting on whether to move forward with applying for the grant. But a straw poll vote of the 11 board members in attendance–five from New Lebanon and six from Chatham–found that all favor moving forward with collecting the data.
At the meeting Ms. Nuciforo stressed the amount of time a grant like this would require and said that it would mean an intensive commitment from board members and school administrative staff. She cautioned that conducting the merger study grant would mean not having time to research how the districts could pursue sharing services rather than merging.
“Watching our neighbors go through the process… this is a big project for the next year to two years,” she told the boards. The Ichabod Crane Central School District is currently conducting a merger study with the Schodack Central Schools. The most recent meeting of the Merger Study Committee set up by those two districts was taking place in Kinderhook on the same evening as the Chatham-New Lebanon meeting.
Ms. Nuciforo and Ms. McGraw said made an appointment to talk to their counterparts at the neighboring districts in an attempt to get a better idea of how much work a merger study takes is and would report back to their boards.
Ms. McGraw also cautioned the districts that applying for the grant means the districts must sincerely look at a merger. She said the state does not want to grant money to districts only interested in collecting data to look at sharing services.
There is a financial incentive to merging the districts, said Ms. McGraw. New Lebanon School District Business Administrator Carrie Nyc-Chevrier told the boards the state aid increase would be $12 million over 15 years if the two districts combined. For the first five years after a merger the combined district would receive a 40% increase in aid, with that amount reduced gradually every year until, at year 15, the district aid formula would derived on the size and need factors applied to all school districts.
Chatham Board member David O’Connell thought that would enough of an incentive to do the study. “It would put us in a 10-year position to not have worry about funding,” he said of the increased aid. He also pointed out that the state offers no similar state aid incentives for districts that decide to share services rather than merge.
Both superintendents emphasized that the districts currently are in good financial shape.
Board members from both boards asked about postponing the study.
“I have serious concerns that it’s going to take up so much of our time and resources,” said New Lebanon board member Christine Sotek.
Ms. McGraw and Ms. Nuciforo plan to do more research on this and other points, and board members were asked to contact members of the Ichabod Crane and Schodack school boards to get information before the next joint session scheduled for Wednesday February 8 in the Chatham elementary school library at 7 p.m.
The boards have to vote on whether or not to go forward with applying for the merger study grant at their next meetings, Chatham on February 14 and New Lebanon on February 15.