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Canton, Potsdam school boards to vote July 9 on merger study

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School boards in Canton and Potsdam plan to vote July 9 on whether to launch an in-depth feasibility study to examine the idea of merging their two districts into a new district that would combine students from both communities.

Both boards are scheduled to hold their annual reorganizational meeting that evening in their respective districts.

The Canton session starts at 6:45 p.m. with an executive session followed by a public session that’s expected to begin at 7 p.m. in the high school library. The regular portion of the Potsdam meeting is at 6 p.m. in the school’s cafeteria.

During a joint meeting held earlier this month, the two boards reviewed a PowerPoint presentation that identified some of the benefits and challenges of district mergers.

The next step is for both boards to decide whether to begin a comprehensive study to examine the fiscal and educational impacts of a merger. A decision to merge or not would ultimately be determined by voters in both communities through public referendums.

Potsdam School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady and Canton School Superintendent William A. Gregory have said their two districts should consider merging in order to avoid “educational and fiscal insolvency.”

“I think both boards and both communities understand that we need to look at all options,” Mr. Brady said Tuesday. “Do we know at this point if this is the best option? No, we don’t. That’s why you start this process, why you do a feasibility study.”

Canton School Board President Barbara B. Beekman agreed.

“Until you do the study, you don’t have any hard and fast numbers to apply to your decisions. The study would provide that data,” Mrs. Beekman said.

State efficiency grants are available to cover a portion of the estimated $50,000 cost of the study.

To expediate the process, Mr. Brady has asked state Sen. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, to get the state to fund Potsdam’s share through a member item, while Canton has made the same request of state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

The study is required to include current and projected data for enrollments, staffing plans and building use plans. A plan for education programs and curricula, a transportation plan and fiscal impacts of the reorganization must be researched.

Both districts have been hit hard over the past five years by funding cuts primarily caused by the state’s gap elimination adjustments. Since 2010, Potsdam has lost $7.7 million in gap reductions imposed by the state. Next school year, Potsdam Central is slated to get $1.5 million less in state aid than it received five years ago, not counting aid for building projects.

Neighboring Canton Central will see a $1 million reduction compared to the 2008-09 school year. Over the past four years, the district has lost $7.3 million through gap reductions.

During the past several years, Canton has cut 56 teaching and staff jobs while Potsdam Central eliminated about 40 jobs.

Mr. Brady said other smaller districts near Potsdam, such as Parishville-Hopkinton and Colton-Pierrepont, have not faced the same funding crises. Also, those districts have much lower property tax rates, so it’s unlikely their residents would be eager to merge with Potsdam, he said.

“To vote for increased taxes and lose their school districts is not logical,” Mr. Brady said.

During the 2012-13 school year, Potsdam Central’s tax rate was $24.18 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation compared with Canton’s $19.26 rate.

Mrs. Beekman said combining Canton and Potsdam might work because the two college communities are similar in many ways.

“I think Canton and Potsdam are very similar communities compared to some of the other smaller districts,” she said. “They are more like-minded with a similar demographic. This idea may be something that’s embraced.”

Revenue shortfalls have collided with rising expenses, particularly in employee health insurance and retirement costs. At the same time, student enrollment has declined or remained stable, and the state has failed to provide significant mandate relief.

In the past, school districts around the state have been resistant to merging their districts for several reasons. Obstacles include greater transportation distances for students, fear of increased costs and property taxes, and concern about job security for school district employees.

Emotional concerns include a fear of losing local identity and a perception that the communities are incompatible. There is also a natural tendency to resist change and a concern that one district will benefit more than another.

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