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School merger concerns raised in Potsdam

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POTSDAM — Questions about athletics and employee contracts were among issues brought up during a forum Wednesday night on the potential merger of the Canton and Potsdam school districts.

Potsdam Central School District Superintendent Patrick H. Brady updated a small group of teachers, joint advisory committee members and residents gathered in the high school auditorium. A similar town hall-style meeting was held Monday in Canton.

In response to a question from Rachel Atkins, Mr. Brady said in a merged school district, employees would have to decide how they will be represented, and then they would bargain for a new contract.

“Until an agreement is reached, those employees will continue under their old contracts. So they would still have the same salary, benefits, etc.,” Mr. Brady said. “So you could have two English teachers side by side — one from Canton, one from Potsdam — and both of them under a different contract for that transition period.”

Ms. Atkins expressed concern that differences in pay and benefits in the pre-existing contracts could create resentment in a merger.

Mr. Brady replied: “Our anticipation is that we will work to get that process through as soon as possible, with both sides hopefully being reasonable about it. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t a challenge.”

The negotiation of new contracts would include finding common ground in areas such as salary, stipends and health insurance contributions.

The salary for a starting teacher at Canton Central is higher than at Potsdam Central. However, veteran teachers at Potsdam are paid more than longtime teachers at Canton.

Mr. Brady also said that, despite talk of potential faculty cuts, a merger would require about 1.5 more full-time teaching positions.

Potsdam High School French teacher Danielle Wilson asked about the possibility of overflowing classes.

“Many of us are at maximum capacity for our class sizes. So when we bring two schools together, what new opportunities could we possibly offer if we’re already at maximum capacity?” she said.

“I think what you will find is that there will be some areas where you can’t add on, but there are opportunities, particularly within the high school program, for more students,” Mr. Brady said.

Potsdam varsity football coach Jim Kirka was outspoken about the impact a merger would have on athletics programs.

“There may be more opportunities in someone’s analysis, but there are so many kids going for these spots, and the opportunities for these students to really play and benefit aren’t going to be there, despite what some people may think,” Mr. Kirka said.

“It’s nice that almost every student can go out for a team and make it. ... If you’re one of 50 versus one of 25, the odds of you being a part of it are going to go way down,” he said.

With Monday’s deadline for the state budget looming, Mr. Brady said the two districts have to wait and see how much funding they will receive for 2014-15.

“The essential question is: Does a merger allow us to sustain or enhance educational opportunities for our students?” Mr. Brady said.

If the two districts agree to merge, the state is supposed to provide $35 million in incentive aid over the next 14 years.

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