Westport-Elizabethtown-Lewis merger pulls off what most rural New York districts won’t try
By Melissa Hart
When students in Elizabethtown, Lewis and Westport started school this year, new signs welcomed them to the newly formed Boquet Valley Central School District.
In December 2018, voters in the eastern Adirondack communities chose to address a common park problem—stagnating student enrollments—by combining their resources. After a yearlong study and a straw poll indicated support, they approved the merging of the Westport Central and Elizabethtown-Lewis Central school districts. Then people involved with each district came together and moved quickly on making decisions and preparing for this academic year.
The to-do list was extensive, including a new district name, school colors, governance, busing and tax equalization—and myriad smaller choices.
“You name it, we had to decide it,” said Superintendent Joshua Meyer. But the transition team got it done. “We were able to start the year off right.”
That they did it at all was a rare feat in the Adirondacks. The combined district has fewer than 500 students, but there are others in the park with barely five dozen where residents have rejected the idea of joining forces. Across the state, in fact, rural communities have clung to their standalone schools as sources of community pride.
A community effort
A drop in students isn’t a problem unique to Boquet Valley. It’s an issue that districts across the state are facing. According to an Empire Center for Public Policy study released in September, the number of students enrolled in New York State public schools is the lowest recorded in 30 years. Enrollment at 600 of the state’s 732 school districts either dropped or remained stable, with data provided by the study showing almost 20 percent decreases for both Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis over the past decade.
The numbers reveal what Adirondack communities have known for years: Small, rural districts are especially vulnerable to declining numbers. Pre-merger, Elizabethtown-Lewis had about 250 students and Westport had about 220. This year’s combined district brings the numbers up to 474.
For Meyer, who was the superintendent at Westport before the merger, dwindling enrollment meant cutting away at positions and course offerings until there wasn’t anything left to trim.
There was talk of paying tuition to send the students in grades 7-12 to another district, or shortening the school day and reducing employees to less than full time, neither of which were appealing options.
A new school board was elected and began meeting twice a month from February through August. Meyer credits community members, staff and faculty from both districts who served on transition committees, meeting regularly and providing recommendations to the board.
“It really was a true community effort,” he said.
Building a new district
When creating the new Boquet Valley Central School District, the merger study provided a solid starting place for the committees and board, who ended up following many of the recommendations.
First on the agenda: Who’s going to school where. For now, the Westport school has been renamed the Lake View Campus and houses K-5 Westport students and serves as the district middle school for grades 6-8. The Elizabethtown school is now called the Mountain View Campus and contains a district-wide pre-K, area elementary classes and the district’s high school (grades 9-12).
The state provides reorganization incentives to help districts meet the costs of combining. According to information provided by New York State Education Department, Boquet Valley Central School District will receive a total of $6.2 million in Reorganization Operating Incentive Aid, spread over 14 years.
The school district will also be eligible for Reorganization Building Aid, which provides an additional 30 percent on top of the district’s regular Building Aid Ratio for projects approved by voters within 10 years of reorganization.
The goal for Boquet Valley is to build a new, centrally based facility, with a new transportation garage, Meyer said. Currently, both bus garages need significant amounts of work, he said, but the district will make do while the administration takes the time to scout possible locations for a new school.
Other tasks tackled over the summer included repainting the gym floors, ordering new signs for the building, updating websites, and a big one: notifying all the district’s third-party vendors. Everything from food service contracts, the IRS to the SATs and Google Maps needed to be updated with the new district name and information.
Open for business
The biggest changes were for middle school and high school students, but even elementary students are gaining new opportunities to mix across the district. “While not a lot changed for K-5, we do some combined field trips and assemblies, to make sure students are getting the same experiences,” Meyer said.
Parents across the district can take advantage of an expanded pre-K program. All students now have access to an expanded school breakfast and lunch program, offered free to all, thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Eligibility Provision program.
Benefits for older students include additional academic and extra-curricular choices: Advanced Placement courses, new general electives, archery and weightlifting, and a new cheerleading squad. While fall and spring sports teams have been combined for the past six years, this is the first year for combined winter sports.
Mathew Severance, a junior from Westport, has been helping to update some of the colorful murals throughout the Mountain View campus. On a recent fall day, he was working on a mural of a griffin (the new Boquet Valley mascot).
“I like it here. I think it’s a good change,” he said. He pointed out the increased opportunities in art and science, his two favorite subjects.
creating new memories
For seniors, making the switch was tough at first. For Westport students, it meant leaving the building where they had attended school since kindergarten.
“It’s been a rough start, and I don’t think anyone would tell you otherwise,” said Lawrence Lobdell, a senior from Westport who serves as co-president of student council. He points to some scheduling snags that popped up, including one that left him without gym class (he managed to fit it in as an “independent study”).
Lobdell admitted he was wary of the merger at first, “but everyone is rising to the occasion. Our class has clicked and we all get along.”
Senior Bree Hunsdon of Elizabethtown said she was nervous about merging, but now “everyone is starting to enjoy it. It’s fun to come to school.” She has taken advantage of taking new
classes, such as Adirondack Science, forensics and video production.
Going into the school year, Lobdell said there were concerns from students that there could be a loss of traditions treasured by both former schools. So a big part of this year has been to ensure continuation of old customs and create new ones. For instance, Halloween is a big deal in Westport, so students from both schools spent the day there, and performed skits that each class collaborated on producing. Elizabethtown-Lewis has a longstanding Winter Solstice celebration, which will now include Westport students.
Implications for other small schools
Boquet Valley’s senior class—with 25 students—is still considered small. Small schools serve the vast majority of Northern New York’s districts. In the Adirondack Park, only Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley enrollments exceed 1,000. In Essex County, 10 districts educate 3,600 students between them. Only three of those districts break 500 students: Lake Placid, Moriah and Ticonderoga.
In sparsely populated Hamilton County, 411 students attend five school districts.
Despite enrollment declines and state incentives to combine districts, mergers are uncommon.
There have only been three school district consolidations in New York State in the past 15 years, according to the state’s chapter of the Association of School Business Officials. The Education Department cites fears of losing local identity, local jobs and time in transit between communities as factors influencing merger decisions.
Just outside the park, Fort Edward Union Free School District (with 485 students) has completed a pre-merger study to look at possible benefits and drawbacks of joining with South Glens Falls or Hudson Falls school districts. At a recent community forum, reported by The Post-Star, many Fort Edwards residents spoke in support of keeping their small school, citing fears of losing their identity if combined with a bigger district. The same fears popped up in potential merger discussions between Crown Point and Ticonderoga in 2013, effectively ending conversations there.
For some small districts, the idea is a nonstarter.
“There is no discussion on a merger in our school district,” said Noelle Short, Superintendent/Principal at Hamilton County’s Long Lake Central School.
Rather than merge districts, some small, rural districts are employing other solutions in order to preserve quality education, and provide options for athletics and other activities.
According to the Education Department, some districts strike agreements among themselves for shared programs and cooperative career, technical and literacy programs.
Another option is to keep the elementary program in the district, and send secondary students (called tuitioning) elsewhere. In an extreme example of this, Inlet Common School, once a pre-K through sixth-grade school, now tuitions all students to the Town of Webb school, in Old Forge.
During a tough financial period several years ago, Minerva Central School (current enrollment: 97) explored the possibility of tuitioning its high school students to North Warren or Johnsburg.
“That was the last and most serious time that it’s been discussed in a few decades,” said Minerva Superintendent Timothy Farrell. They ended up shifting things around and combining grades to make it work.
Part of being a tiny school district can also mean falling short in numbers needed to offer athletics. Like many Adirondack districts, (Indian Lake and Long Lake; Schroon Lake and Bolton) Minerva had turned to a neighboring district—Newcomb—to create combined sports teams back in 1993, only to find in recent years that two tiny districts can still struggle to find enough students to fill teams. Starting this school year, Minerva parted ways with Newcomb and joined up with Johnsburg, which also partners with North Warren for certain sports. The new arrangement is more fluid by design, he said.
“It’s all about staying focused on what’s most important, which is finding opportunities for our kids. In order to do that, we had to break down some traditional rivalries and stereotypes.”
From Farrell’s viewpoint, these types of arrangements need to have community support. “Those are community issues and tough decisions to make.”
Newcomb has also tried collaborating well beyond the park. Recruiting students from overseas has helped boost enrollment in the small district that had 77 students last year in grades K-12.
According to Superintendent Chris Fisher, Newcomb has hosted 135 students from more than 30 countries since 2007, with 14 already signed up for next school year.
The program has been a win for everyone, Fisher said, including local students who benefit from increased learning opportunities. This year, for instance, students are taking part in a Conversational Russian Club that meets on Fridays.
“It’s been phenomenal. It’s really helped to change and shape the culture of our school,” she said.
Rare success story?
Although the process of merging wasn’t always perfect, it seems the stars were aligned for the creation of Boquet Valley, from the communities’ close proximity to similar size and financial situations. Where anticipated tax rate increases have stopped votes in other districts across the state from going forward, the equalization process apparently wasn’t a deal-breaker for Elizabethtown-Lewis and Westport residents, as the merger vote passed by wide margins in both districts. According to Meyer, Elizabethtown-Lewis homeowners saw their tax bills go up about $1 for every $1,000 of assessed value. In Westport, the rate decreased by about the same amount.
More good news: They managed to preserve all their current positions without having to let anyone go.
“While merging may not be the answer for everyone,” Meyer said, “small rural schools across the state need to figure out a way to continue operating and providing a high-quality education to the students with less money and more mandates.
“Merging was the right decision for our communities.”