By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY There will be no study of merging the Livingston Manor and Roscoe school districts, at least for now.
A week after attending a forum on such a potential, the Roscoe school board decided not to pursue a full-fledged study, instead seeking out shared efficiencies with neighboring Manor on a case-by-case basis.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of community support in Roscoe [for a merger],” explained Board President Gary Dahlman.
That sentiment was confirmed by a survey of the November 15 forum participants, according to Roscoe Superintendent John Evans, who said the 35-40 respondents from Roscoe were against merging by a 2-1 margin.
“There seems to be very few people in the middle,” Evans assessed. “... They’re either completely against it or for it, and on our side, it was more against.”
That’s left Manor officials disappointed and unsure of their next step.
“We can’t do a study without them,” Manor Superintendent Deborah Fox related. “Both Governor [Andrew] Cuomo and Commissioner of Education [John] King have been outspoken about the need for districts to explore mergers. A proactive approach would be beneficial in light of the challenges we face.”
She explained that the state would have paid for about 90 percent of the $40,000-$50,000 study, and the two districts would have split the remaining 10 percent.
But Dahlman thought Manor might have overestimated Roscoe’s interest, where a merger vote failed years ago.
“I think they just assumed on Roscoe’s part that we were ready,” Dahlman postulated. “... But we don’t feel we’ve gotten to that point.”
Roscoe and Manor are already sharing their football, soccer, baseball and softball teams (though due to issues over coaches’ contracts, they temporarily “de-merged” their winter sports teams), along with related personnel and transportation.
And Dahlman said his board is interested in discussing more sharing, like a single bus to BOCES in Liberty and jointly offering Advanced Placement courses.
“We would definitely like to share more,” he affirmed.
But not via a full merger.
“For Roscoe, it’s not just about saving money,” he stated. “We really want to provide more for our kids.”
“Because Roscoe is the smaller district,” added Supt. Evans, “the educational benefit doesn’t seem to be as great as everyone had hoped it would be.”
He acknowledged the sensitive nature of the merger idea in the community, too.
“There’s a big fear of losing their school,” Evans explained. “Some of the very controversial aspects of the Sullivan West merger are fresh in everyone’s minds.”
But he agreed with Dahlman that Roscoe intends to talk with Manor anytime either district has a vacancy or a retirement, seeing where staff and resources can be shared.
Manor School Board President Daniel Smith is eager to continue conversing and has sent a letter to the Roscoe board asking it to reconsider.
“The Livingston Manor Board remains very much in favor of exploring how a merger with Roscoe could enhance educational and extracurricular opportunities for students, along with how it could ease the tax burden on the communities,” he remarked.
Even if that doesn’t include a full merger.
“I believe we’d be open to anything that would improve our kids’ education and the bottom line at the same time,” he affirmed. “... ‘Business as usual’ can’t continue as far as we run our schools.”
In the meantime, Manor may explore other options, with Fox planning to make a report to the board at its December 21 meeting.
“Livingston Manor’s enrollment has declined 28 percent over the past 10 years, and there is a strong possibility the trend will continue well into the future,” she remarked.
Fox holds out hope that Roscoe will change its mind, noting that state aid incentives are larger for mergers than piecemeal efforts.
“We have a responsibility to develop a long-term plan that ensures the district remains educationally strong and fiscally sound,” she said. “It makes sense to take advantage of the reorganization grants available for merger studies so the boards and communities can make informed decisions.”
Evans indicated Roscoe may get to that point sooner rather than later.
“Within the next year or two,” he predicted, “I would expect to see these discussions happening again.”