Minerva and Johnsburg seek public’s input about possible consolidation
North Country school districts have been grappling with declining enrollment for the last three decades, leaving empty space in buildings, and fewer children in grades.
But because schools are deeply tied to local identity, most districts — and their communities — have strongly resisted merging.
Bucking that trend are two small school districts in the Adirondacks: the Minerva Central School District in Essex County and the Johnsburg Central School District in Warren County.
Currently, Minerva has 105 students, K-12. Johnsburg has 260.
“If we did merge, we would still be a pretty small district,” said Johnsburg’s superintendent, Michael Markwica.
In both districts, some of their grades have just a handful of students. “There is the possibility of being too small in a certain grade. That doesn’t allow for as much interaction, for different viewpoints, learning to share,” Markwica said.
Candice Husson, Minerva’s superintendent, agrees. “Our kindergarten is three [students],” Husson said. “Our second grade is four, our fifth grade is five. That lends itself to its own challenges.”
Small districts getting smaller, but few mergers
Of course, the Minerva and Johnsburg districts have always been small. But they’ve also been shrinking. According to public enrollment data, Johnsburg and Minerva’s current enrollment is about half of what it was in the 1990s, and three-quarters of what it was in 2010.
Statewide, public enrollment data shows New York schools have been steadily losing students since 2010, with rural counties showing the steepest losses.
Yet, mergers are rare. Since 2000, there have been just a handful of them in the entire state.
Husson says that’s because it’s hard to give up your local school. “I mean, first and foremost, what you lose in a merger is your school,” she said, “and your community, your identity.”
Mergers have also historically been portrayed as very negative, Markwica says, especially in the ’80s and ’90s. “Merging was always used as a threat. I remember growing up in that kind of atmosphere,” Markwica said, “and so I think that’s another thing we’re fighting, is this ‘merging is a bad thing.'”
Markwica and Husson are trying to buck that narrative. Both superintendents, who have each been in their respective districts for decades, say they’re exploring the option because it might be better for students and staff.
“The only reason to merge, No. 1, is, ‘Is it good for students?’” Markwica said. “And this is the right time to ask that question.”
Husson said she and her board felt a responsibility to explore the option “just so that we knew we were doing our due diligence for our community and our school,” in the face of declining enrollment, tighter budgets, and the current obstacles they face.
“I think you can’t deny the fact that we’re struggling with enrollment,” Husson said. “We’re struggling with hiring teachers and being able to provide opportunities for our students.”
Part of a larger pattern
They are hardly alone in this struggle. Declining enrollment woes are widespread across the state and the region. In the entire Adirondack Park, only two school districts boast over one thousand kids, Saranac Lake and AuSable Valley, both of which are fairly large and sprawling districts.
When Husson describes Minerva, she could be talking about many North Country towns. “It’s a small community, aging population, lots of second homeowners, you know, not a lot of people moving into the district. So we’re kind of keeping those families that stick around.”
But even those generational families are under threat from rising home prices, Husson says. “I firmly believe that having lived up here my entire life, one of our problems recently is that there’s just nowhere to rent.” She says available homes are being turned into short-term rentals or being sold as second homes “for astronomical amounts.”
And Markwica says there’s another larger, societal factor: smaller families. “Someone used to have three or four kids. A lot of families are choosing to have one, maybe two,” he said.
A long and thoughtful road
So in 2022, Johnsburg proposed that both districts conduct a feasibility study on merging.
The districts are in the middle of that process now. They still have a number of votes ahead, and either district can stop the process at multiple points.
Husson and Markwica stressed that nothing is set in stone.
To gauge public opinion, the districts have been jointly holding community meetings for the last year.
Husson and Markwica are encouraging everyone to come out and take part in the conversation. “It’s been hard because we don’t hear much,” Husson said. “We’re having some participation in the audience from members. Some, not a lot.”
But that’s not because people don’t have opinions, Markwica says.
He figures folks are waiting for the feasibility study to be finished, or have already made up their minds about how they’ll vote, if and when it comes to that. He says he wants as many people as possible to get involved so that they have accurate information “and not just rumors, or what they’ve heard.”
“I would hope people would vote [about the merger] on students’ futures, not their history,” Markwica said. He said that, as of now, he favors merging the districts.
Husson said she believes both districts can thrive whether or not they merge, but can see the benefits of larger classes and more staff. “We just want people to, like Mike said, come out and be informed when they make their decision.”
Losing identity, and a big transition
Historically, lots of mergers in the region have died before ever reaching a vote. Husson says that’s mostly because of fears of losing identity. “Sometimes it’s hard to let go of us being the Fighting Irish, and Johnsburg being the Johnsburg Jaguars. It’s hard to lose that pride, and that sense of community. That’s the first thing that comes up when districts are considering a merge.”
What may soften the blow here is that Johnsburg and Minerva are close neighbors. Their school buildings are just six miles apart, and the superintendents said both districts would like to see both buildings used, while increasing class sizes, electives, and specialist staff.
In recent memory is a merger just up the road. In 2019, the Westport and Elizabethtown-Lewis school districts merged to become Boquet Valley Central School District. It’s hasn’t been a seamless transition, and that’s something Markwica and Husson say they know would come with a merger in their backyard.
“It’s not going to just be all puppies and rainbows the first year, or even the first five years,” Husson said. “It takes time.”
When asked about their personal takes on merging, both superintendents said they’d like what’s best for students, based on facts. They’re eagerly awaiting the completion of the feasibility study.
Markwica is retiring soon, and says that whether or not they merge, it’s important to him to know that they’ve faced the music, and not ignored declining enrollment. “I want to be able to say that I, along with my board, have asked the question and the community has made a decision. Either way it goes, you know, they have made a decision.”
If enrollments continue to drop, and budgets get harder to balance, it’s a decision dozens of districts may have to make in coming years.
Minerva and Johnsburg held a public meeting Jan. 17 and have planned two additional meetings on the potential merger:
- – 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 31st at Johnsburg Central School.
- – 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15 at Minerva Central School