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Thirty come out for merger meeting in Potsdam

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POTSDAM - Should a feasibility study determine that it would be beneficial for the Potsdam and Canton Central School Districts to merge a new district could be formed for the 2015-2016 academic year.

During a presentation outlining the merger process and the reasoning behind it, Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said he expects a feasibility currently being conducted to completed this May with a final copy of that report submitted to the State Education Dept. in June.

Both districts would then share information in their communities prior to a straw vote that would follow authorization from both boards of education to move forward. That initial vote would tentatively be held October. If approved, a final binding could be held in December. Approval would then lead to a special election where board of education members for the new district would be elected with the new district officially being formed on July 1, 2015.

In addition to having a new board of education, Mr. Brady said the new district would also have only one superintendent.

“It could be Bill (Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory) or I, but it could be neither of us,” he said. “That’s the risk Bill and I took because it’s not about us, it’s about what opportunities we could provide for students.”

Mr. Brady also spoke about the difficult financial situation that led both districts to where they are today.

“We’ve been put in a very difficult financial situation,” he said, noting that the two districts have lost a combined $18 million in state aid since the 2009-2010 fiscal year when the state first implemented what it called the “Gap Elimination Adjustment.”

“They (the state) took state aid from schools to balance their budget,” he said, adding the state is now working with a budget surplus, while schools continue to struggle to get by.

Mr. Brady noted that both Canton and Potsdam lose out on aid each year due to being classified as “average needs” districts instead of high needs districts.

“Average needs districts were hit the hardest,” he said, adding this year isn’t going to be any better with the “2 percent tax cap” actually a 1.46 percent tax cap this year as a result of the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Since the 2008-2009 fiscal year, Mr. Brady said Canton has eliminated 56 faculty and staff positions, while Potsdam has eliminated 48.

A new, merged district could help restore some of the positions and programs that have been lost, as well as maintain programs that are currently in place.

Linda Cuamano asked when programs would start being restored.

“That’s a very difficult question,” Mr. Brady said, explaining those decisions would be left up to the newly formed board of education.

Ms. Cuamano also voiced concerned about the impact the merger could have on each respective village.

“Part of the attraction of living in the village and paying the exorbitant taxes is the close proximity to the schools,” she said. “People are going to end up moving between Canton and Potsdam.

While no decisions have been made yet in relation to the facilities that would be used by a merged district, Mr. Brady outlined one scenario that would have elementary students stay in either Canton or Potsdam, with all of the middle school students attending school in one community and the high school students attending class in the other.

“You could end up with a lot of families with one kid going to school in Canton and one kid going to school in Potsdam,” she said, to which Mr. Brady replied, “Yea, It’s fairly common to have a family with a child in each school in our district.”

Ms. Cuamano said though, there is a difference.

“It’s not that big of a deal when it’s just across the field.”

Along those same lines, Mark Leuthauser expressed concerns over the potential increased travel for students who drive and long bus times for students riding the bus to school.

During the presentation, Mr. Brady touched on those concerns noting a combined Potsdam-Canton school district would be just slightly larger in terms of square miles than Parishville-Hopkinton and smaller than the Gouverneur, Colton-Pierrepont, Edwards-Knox, Malone, and Saranac Lake School Districts.

Checking in at 221.2 square miles, he said a merged district wouldn’t even be close to the largest in the area, as the Malone Central School District is 357.5 square miles and the Saranac Lake Central School District is 639.6 square miles.

Mr. Brady also explained that with a merger comes increased aid to the tune of an additional $35,275,562 over the next 14 years, something that not everyone present was sold on with some people questioning whether or not the state could be trusted and others questioning what would happen 15 years down the road when the additional aid is no longer there.

“Are we operating on the assumption that in 14 years things will be better?” asked Potsdam Senior Noah Chichester.

“Yes, that’s the case,” Mr. Brady replied, noting that to help prepare for the transition the increased aid gradually returns to lower levels over a nine year period after five years of dramatically increased aid.

Among the uses for the additional aid, at least in year one is to help level off the tax rates between the two communities.

Using 2013-2014 budget information Mr. Brady noted Potsdam had a tax rate of $22.74 per thousand dollars of assessed property value, while Canton had a tax rate of $19.65.

Former Potsdam Board of Education member Sandra Morris said that with the discrepancy she wondered whether students would actually benefit from the increased aid or whether or not it would be used to help level off the tax rates.

Mr. Brady said that with a tax rate difference of just over $3, there would be plenty of money left after the rates were adjusted.

Ms. Morris also suggested that Canton residents were being under-taxed.

“If they were paying $3 more per thousand, they probably wouldn’t be in this situation,” she said.

Mr. Gregory though said that is not possible.

“With the kind of gaps we’re talking about, $1.5 million, $2 million, we can’t tax our way out of that. No one can,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting will be followed tonight by a similar meeting at 7 p.m. in the Canton High School Auditorium.

Mr. Brady said he was pleased with the turnout, which included approximately 35 people.

“I think we had a very good turnout,” he said. “There were some excellent questions and we had a variety perspectives.”

Future meetings of the joint advisory committee include Feb. 10 at the Canton High School Library, March 12 at the Potsdam High School Library, April 7 at the Canton High School Library and May 7 at the Potsdam High School Library.

February’s topics include athletics and extracurricular activities, March’s topics include employee contracts and staffing, with April’s topics including transportation, food service and a fiscal report. May’s meeting will include a wrap-up and final recommendations. Each meeting will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. and members of the public are invited to attend.

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