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Canton, Potsdam schools talk merger

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POTSDAM — About 35 people turned out to a Tuesday night meeting to hear about the possibility of merging the Canton and Potsdam central school districts.

School board members from the two districts held a joint session to learn about the steps involved in the two-year process of dissolving the districts and legally creating a new one with a new school board.

Although no decisions were reached, each of the boards is expected to vote soon on whether to pursue a feasibility study the state requires as part of the merger process.

Bruce T. Fraser, executive director of the state Rural Schools Association, Ithaca, gave an overview of the merger process. Several administrators from both districts attended, as well as Thomas A. Burns, superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“It’s clear you have to look at all options,” Mr. Fraser said, referring to the funding shortfalls faced by both districts. “We have to find a way to sustain the quality you have in these two districts. That quality is threatened.”

He urged the boards to keep their community members informed every step of the way because ultimately the voters in both districts determine whether the merger is approved or rejected.

Located about 10 miles apart, the districts are similar in that they both house two colleges. The Canton Golden Bears and Potsdam Sandstoners also have been longtime sports rivals.

“School boards have a lot of power initially, but ultimately it has to be endorsed by the citizens of each community,” Mr. Fraser said. “You have to try to address every concern that may exist out there.”

Over the past several years, Canton and Potsdam have been two of the hardest-hit districts in the region in terms of state aid cuts. Both have cut dozens of staff and faculty members, including about 40 at Potsdam and 56 at Canton.

Statewide, only about one of every four merger votes has been successful in prior years, but dwindling state aid may change that outcome, Mr. Fraser said.

He noted that two districts in the Mohawk Valley region are completing a merger. Two others in the Binghamton area are getting ready to submit their feasibility study to the state Education Department.

Merging Canton and Potsdam would provide the new district with an estimated $35.28 million incentive aid over the next 15 years, as well as a 30 percent increase in building incentive aid for the next 10 years, Mr. Fraser said.

However, he cautioned that the extra funding won’t mean the new district will be able to offer “all the bells and whistles.”

“It will provide the best opportunity to sustain what you have now,” Mr. Fraser said.

His PowerPoint presentation is available on both the Potsdam and Canton district websites.

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