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Watertown school board pushes back PILOT vote

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The Watertown City School District will be the last taxing jurisdiction to vote on Morgan Management’s tax break for a 394-unit apartment complex off County Route 202.

With two members expected to be absent from tonight’s meeting, however, the Board of Education will push the vote back.

“We have a finance meeting or two between now and our next meeting, and I know we have a couple of members still looking for some clarification on the draft language,” said board President Michael R. Flick.

He said Morgan’s payment-in-lieu-of-taxes proposal, or PILOT, will be discussed in open session during the 7 p.m. meeting. A date for the vote has not been decided.

During the last meeting, many board members expressed concern about the PILOT’s potential effects. Superintendent Terry N. Fralick said the district could expect anywhere from 300 to 500 new students from Morgan’s project and another planned by COR Development Co.

“We anticipate students from the COR development by the middle of next year. We expect growth over the next year and a half,” Mr. Fralick said in a previous interview.

Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency CEO Donald C. Alexander said construction for COR’s Beaver Meadows apartment complex has not started yet. He estimated the construction could take 14 to 18 months to finish once the paperwork is done.

At the last meeting, Mr. Fralick expressed concern about already large classes, especially in kindergarten, and the overcrowding that could ensue if the PILOT passes.

Timing creates a double-edged sword for the district; Mr. Flick said the students would have to be enrolled before the school could be approved for new classrooms or a new elementary school if one were needed, creating overcrowding in the interim.

State Education Department spokeswoman Jane Briggs said that is not true, however.

“We allow districts to project how many students they will have and to build for what they expect to have for enrollment,” she said.

Mr. Fralick also said hiring teachers would be difficult with the budget strains the district has faced in the past three years.

James E. Reagen, spokesman for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said the senator would do everything in her power to ensure the district was not disadvantaged for supporting Fort Drum.

“The school aid the district receives is adjusted as the students come in,” he said. “If they had a problem, Sen. Ritchie would be more than happy to help the district. She’s more than willing to work with the communities to make sure they get as much state aid as possible.”

Mr. Reagen said Mrs. Ritchie would work with the state to bring in additional aid if the district were unable to buy buses or hire teachers needed to support the influx of students Mr. Fralick expects.

New buses will most likely be needed, although 500 students may be a high estimate for the complexes. When they are completed, they will contain about 690 apartments. The COR project is expected to consist mostly of one-bedroom apartments, while the Morgan project will be mostly two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Before the COR PILOT was approved, Mr. Fralick estimated nearly 300 students could be added from the Beaver Meadow apartment complex. However, in February 2010, he reported to the school board that the district added only 25 to 30 students from the 200-unit Summit Wood project after Norstar Development USA began renting apartments there in March 2009.

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, also plans to help the district if it needs financial assistance, whether the school enrolls 50 students or 500. She cites the Carthage and Indian River school districts as examples of districts experiencing rising enrollment because of Fort Drum.

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