The school districts of Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton are currently undergoing a study to determine whether they should merge into one district.
The process began about two years ago in response to Hamilton school district’s financial concerns. Due to New York’s Gap Elimination Adjustment deductions, Hamilton school district has lost 2.6 million dollars over the last four years. This prompted a discussion of remedial options, one of which included a state-funded merger feasibility study.
The study’s consultants have put forth various recommendations for the building configuration of the potential merged district. For the purposes of accumulating data, the consultants proposed a plan in which students from both Morrisville-Eaton and Hamilton attend elementary school in their hometowns, all students attend middle school in Morrisville and all students attend high school in Hamilton.
According to Susan Marafino, a Hamilton resident who serves on the Community Advisory Committee, deciding on a building configuration was a contentious issue between the Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton residents because representatives from both communities wanted the high school to be located in their hometown. Marafino stressed that there is a misconception among residents that the proposed configuration is definitive, when in fact it is not binding.
“People think that because we came up with that scenario that this is what it would be if we were to be merged,” Marafino said. “It’s just one possible scenario. It’s data that the community can use about whether to merge or not.”
In actuality, the existing school boards would be dissolved and a new school board comprised of elected officials who might not equally represent both Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton would make all of the decisions about a merged district.
If the two districts were to merge, class size would more than slightly double to reach about 100 students each. Personnel would be reassigned to the appropriate location based on what grade they teach.
“I would not anticipate that there would be a number of lost positions,” Hamilton Central School District Superintendent Dr. Susan Bowers said. “We would imagine that most people, if not all, of our staff would be employed. We do imagine that there will be a couple people who will want to retire.”
The distance between the two furthest schools in the potential new district is 12-13 miles, which would require students to spend more time on the bus. The consultants set the maximum amount of time that they would allow students to be on the bus at one and a half hours a day each way.
“So that’s three hours a day for the unlucky children who have to be in the furthest region of getting shuttled around,” Marafino said. “The quality of life piece for the child and the family, that is a really concerning issue for many of us on the committee and many of us in the community.”
Further, Marafino noted that transportation costs continue to increase each year; the amplified transportation costs would negate the benefits of the potential savings that would come from the merger, she said.
According to Bowers, the district, if it merges, besides the state aid that it gets on an annual basis, would receive an additional 20 million dollars in incentive aid for the first 14 to 15 years.
“There’s no guarantee on that incentive aid so it’s a pretty big gamble to consider doing something based on that promise,” Marafino said.
She added that Hamilton has less debt than Morrisville-Eaton, so if the two districts were to combine, Hamilton’s debt burden would increase.
A series of four votes establishes whether the process continues. The Hamilton Board of Education first underwent an advisory vote, which will be followed in December by a straw vote in which the two communities vote individually on whether they wish to continue the process. If both communities approve the merger study, it will continue; if one or both reject it, the study ends. Next, the Board would vote again, and if its members vote yes, they would send a binding referendum to the communities. If both communities vote yes on the binding referendum, which is scheduled for February, the new district would form July 1, 2014.
According to Marafino, the majority of the Hamilton representatives of the Community Advisory Committee wrote a letter to the Board discouraging the use of a straw vote because if the two communities do not vote the same way, the outcome might be divisive.
“[Morrisville-Eaton] is a community we want to work with and we have to work with to continue to come up with creative solutions,” Marafino said.
The Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton school districts are already working together to mitigate financial problems by sharing services.
According to Bowers, the two school districts, which have always been rivals in sports, have combined many varsity teams. Additionally, the two districts now share special education services.
“We’ve been doing just about anything we could think of to save money,” Bowers said. “The Hamilton Emerald Foundation helps support us through the years. Colgate has stepped up and given us additional funding to help up through these difficult times for a limited period of time. So we’re looking at any options that will help us supplement our program so that it can be retained.”
Marafino noted that historically Hamilton voters have been willing to increase their taxes in order to help maintain the school district’s programs such as Advanced Placement courses, three languages and a strong music program. While Hamilton’s taxes have increased 10.4 percent in the past four years, Morrsiville-Eaton voters have made different decisions and have cut many of their programs, according to Marafino.
Bowers said she considers the issue to be urgent because, at the beginning of the merger study, the Hamilton Teachers Association was comprised of 75 members, and now only has 59 members – a cut of 20 percent.
If the merger does not occur, Bowers will continue to explore other options such as regional high schools and finding other sources of funding.
Bowers does not have any indication as to whether the merger will happen.
“It’s not something that we have control over. It’s really both the Hamilton and Morrisville-Eaton voters who have the opportunity to make that decision,” Bowers said.
Bowers will soon be approaching different community groups to provide them with information gained from the merger study so that they can come to their own conclusions based on the data about whether they approve of the option.
“When you make the choice to do the study you have to go all the way through to the end of it,” Marafino said. “It’s more common than not now with any of these merger studies, especially in less populated areas, that districts go through the studies and then decide not to do the merger. But you’d still have the data that you can then use for other solutions.”
Contact Julia Queller at [email protected]