OPPENHEIM - Oppenheim-Ephratah school officials and about 30 residents applauded Tuesday night after hearing voters narrowly approved a merger with the St. Johnsville Central School District.
Oppenheim-Ephratah voters approved the merger of the two school districts in a 385-366 vote. The merger will take effect July 1.
A year ago, district residents rejected the proposed merger in a vote of 458-400. St. Johnsville school voters previously approved the merger last December.
Oppenheim-Ephratah Superintendent Dan Russom said he was surprised but happy by the outcome of Tuesday's vote.
"I'm just very pleased ... that it passed now and we can start really looking for a better future for the school district," Russom said.
Some residents who voted in favor of the merger said it will give students more opportunities.
St. Johnsville teacher Staci Battisti said she voted Tuesday in favor of the merger because she believed it would benefit the students and teachers in both districts.
She said she had thought the merger would pass this time.
"I think people realize that this school may not be here," Battisti said of Oppenheim-Ephratah. "And these kids deserve to have an education in their area - not be forced to go somewhere else."
District resident Willard Miles, a former Oppenheim-Ephratah student, also voted for the merger Tuesday and said he believed that even if the merger didn't go through, Oppenheim-Ephratah wouldn't last much longer than three to five years in its current format.
"We have a choice now, tonight," Miles said. "The next time something has to be done, we won't have a choice. We'll do what the state tells us to do ... I think merging with St. Johnsville is the right thing to do. We're both equal-size schools. Neither one is going to get lost in the shuffle as opposed to getting annexed into another school where our students would get lost."
In the close vote, the opposing voice was almost as strong.
Owen Brown and his wife both voted no. Brown said he voted against the merger because he doesn't like the idea of splitting up the high school and elementary school.
He said school officials should have looked at cutting extracurricular activities.
"We pay enough taxes. [We should] cut expenses," he said. "Don't have anymore teams. ... Put all the money into the classrooms and the teachers, and that's it."
Matt Sheppard also voted against the merger.?He said the taxpayers of Oppenheim-Ephratah have kept the school going and shouldn't have to take on St. Johnsville's troubles.
He said the district should have looked at making more cuts, such as multiple teachers in a single classroom.
St. Johnsville Superintendent Laura Campione-Lawrence said the merger approval "is an exciting time for education in our community."
"With the merger question now decided, we can move forward with our goals that have been on hold as we waited for the result of the merger vote," she said.
Oppenheim-Ephratah Board President Ben Conte said he is happy the merger passed.
"I think financially it's going to be a little better. And I think educationally, it definitely will be better next year," he said. "... I think for the kids it's going to be great because in the last few years, some of the opportunities they had in the past that went by the wayside, now it's going to come back and then some."
In the coming months, residents in the two districts will vote on additional proposals.
The first will decide how many members will serve on the combined districts' board - five, seven or nine. Other referendums will select board members and a new budget.
"And we're going to have to do a lot of curriculum work. There's a lot of things to [get done]," Russom said. "One of the first things I'm going to recommend is to have a joint meeting of the current boards with our attorneys and start talking about what can we do legally before July 1 or before the new board is elected."
Once elected, the new school board will select a superintendent, begin working on a contract with the new teachers union and craft the district's first budget.
The merger will help both districts financially by paying for 98 percent of any construction in the first 10 years of the merged districts and an additional $14 million in aid over 14 years to make improvements, expand curriculum, stabilize property taxes and build savings, according to the merger study. The districts will benefit from higher state aid on the remaining capital debt, saving $390,000.