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Fiscal problems cause General Brown to ponder merger

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DEXTER — The General Brown Central School District’s dire financial situation has left its Board of Education to further consider the idea of merging with another school district.

Since the process of merging is complex, the board brought Jack J. Boak, superintendent of the Jefferson-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, to its monthly meeting Monday to explain what it takes to mesh school districts.

“In order for districts to think about a merger, they have to share a boundary line,” Mr. Boak said.

General Brown Superintendent Stephan J. Vigliotti Sr. said area school districts that would qualify under that guideline to merge with General Brown include Lyme Central, Sackets Harbor Central, Thousand Islands Central, LaFargeville Central, Watertown City and Indian River Central.

The idea of merging isn’t new to General Brown. A few decades ago, Mr. Boak said, there were two inquiries about merging with Lyme Central. A possible merger was defeated once by Lyme Central, and once by General Brown. Loss of identity was feared.

“This is probably the biggest reason why mergers aren’t successful,” Mr. Boak said. “It’s the emotion involved in both communities.”

General Brown has recently sought merger information as it faces a $1.8 million deficit in its 2013-14 spending plan development process. The district has also received significantly less state aid throughout the past few years.

There are two types of mergers: centralization, in which schools can combine, or annexation, in which a school district takes over another. Whichever option districts choose, a multi-year process must follow. Mr. Boak said a study would first be conducted by an outside consultant who would examine all aspects of the district. Multiple votes would be taken in both school districts, with input from both communities.

The cumbersome process, Mr. Boak said, has its pros and cons for school districts involved. There may be larger class sizes and longer bus runs. Student achievement may or may not increase. More extracurricular opportunities will be available.

Financial incentives, in the form of additional state aid, are offered for the first 15 years of a merger. Those incentives will be used for financing transition costs, building a reserve for long-term fiscal stability and reducing taxes.

Board member Cynthia L. Humerickhouse asked Mr. Boak if he could recommend to the board whether it really needs to consider merging. He said the first step is for board members to look at how they can help the district now, and then seriously look at whether they want to proceed with a study.

The study, which costs about $50,000 on average, could be funded by a state Department of State grant.

Merging is being considered elsewhere in the north country, as a few school districts in St. Lawrence County have considered forming a regional high school, he said.

Although there were 11,372 school districts in the state in 1870, that number decreased to 697 by 2010. While the number of mergers has particularly slowed since the 1980s, Mr. Boak said, the state’s tough fiscal times have many districts throughout the state considering a merger as a viable option.

“It sounds pretty bleak. That’s because it is,” Mr. Boak said. “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

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