Merger work brings officials together

OPPENHEIM – St. Johnsville Central School superintendent Laura Campione-Lawrence wandered the hallways and poked her head into classrooms at Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School on Wednesday, pointing out details other residents with her may have missed – Smart Boards in most classrooms, state-of-the art science labs, and the fact that the building’s big, blue lockers might be an issue students should consider when voting on school colors.

“I like the cameras,” she said, pointing out the many surveillance points throughout the hallway of what next year will be the middle school of the combined Oppenheim-Ephratah-St. Johnsville school district.

The school hosted a tour for about 35 St. Johnsville parents, students and Board of Education members before officials from both districts met to discuss how students will be bused in the new, combined district, which will take effect July 1. St. Johnsville officials said they came away from the visit impressed.

“What’s nice is their facilities, their labs – especially their science labs – and even their student-monitoring system. They have cameras everywhere,” Campione-Lawrence said, noting the importance of school security after December’s school attack in Newtown, Conn.

“They’re doing some different things we don’t do and we have some things they don’t have, so I think it’s going to be a great complement,” St. Johnsville school board President Chris Mosher said. “I think the kids that come up here are going to transition pretty nice.”

Mosher’s son, Zachary, who will be a middle schooler in the Oppenheim-Ephratah building next year, joined the tour, which included visits to the technology, home-and-careers, computer and science rooms, where science teacher George Brown showed off the district’s program that raises brook trout for release into a local creek and also talked about success of the school’s Envirothon teams, taking pride in the participants’ perfect score in forestry last year.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t toot my kids’ horn or anything,” Brown said. “We’re all going to be together.”

Oppenheim-Ephratah will next year host the combined district’s sixth- through eighth-graders, as well as elementary students now living the current district. St. Johnsville will continue to use its D.H. Robbins Elementary School building for local elementary students, and its secondary school building will host all high schoolers from within the district. Students attending classes in different buildings next year will get to visit those facilities and meet their future classmates Friday.

Board members Wednesday said merging the transportation system will likely not be a troublesome ordeal.

A plan presented Wednesday by Oppenheim-Ephratah Transportation Supervisor Bruce LaQuay would leave existing bus routes mostly intact, if his district’s 17-bus fleet and St. Johnsville’s four buses consolidated operations in Oppenheim. St. Johnsville also contracts with Little Falls-Fonda Bus for four buses and drivers, but that arrangement would be canceled if the merged district were to purchase two new buses, he said.

“With all that, routes will stay the same he said,” adding that only minor tweaks would be made for bus routes that now overlap. The plan would call for students of all ages to be picked up at the same time, with the last dropoffs being St. Johnsville students attending the middle school in Oppenheim and O-E students attending high school in St. Johnsville.

School times and routes are subject to approval by the new Board of Education, which will be elected next month.

“It’s a no-brainer. It makes sense – the whole thing,” Mosher said.

On leave

During the meeting, district officials did not bring up their two administrators who were placed on paid leave – Oppenheim-Ephratah superintendent Dan Russom and Chris Fatta, the elementary principal in St. Johnsville, the former Oppenheim-Ephratah principal. District officials have not disclosed the reasons for the actions, only to say they did not involve criminal activity or students.

Campione-Lawrence said the district would have no comment on Fatta’s status. And when Oppenheim-Ephratah board members were asked during the meeting if there had been progress on Russom’s situation, board President Ben Conte answered, “no,” adding, “we have no comment would be the best way to put it. We’re following procedure.”

Shortly after Russom was placed on leave, his name was removed from the school district home page and his name, photo and were removed from the page of district officials, but they was restored to the site early last week.

Conte said he did not know Russom’s name had been removed and said the board did not instruct anyone to either remove or restore it. A district employee later said a misunderstanding and miscommunication were to blame.