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Consultants to recommend moving forward with merger


POTSDAM - A trio of consultants hired by the Potsdam and Canton Central School District told Joint Advisory Committee members on Wednesday they would be recommending both districts move forward with the merger process.

“There is no question about it the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages,” consultant Roger Gorham said. “Whether or not a merged district is right for Canton and Potsdam at this time is up to your communities to decide.”

When asked what would happen should the merger not occur, Mr. Gorham said there isn’t really a definitive answer to that question.

“If the merger goes down, the community will have determined this is not the answer they are seeking,” he said.

Theresa Witmer, a retired music teacher from Potsdam, said people wanting to know what will happen if the merger isn’t approved don’t need to look far for their answers.

“Is what’s happening now at St. Lawrence Central a cautionary tale?” she asked, to which Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory replied, “The short answer is yes.”

“They’re down to one language. They’re cutting arts and music. Look at what’s happening at St. Lawrence Central. That could happen here,” Ms. Witmer said.

Consultant Douglas Hamlin noted that should both districts continue down their current paths they would eventually reach a point where nothing would be off the table.

Sports programs, kindergarten and other non-mandated programs would all be on the chopping block, he said, noting that other districts across the state have already cut sports and some schools are even only offering half-day kindergarten.

“To my knowledge no one has eliminated kindergarten,” he said.

Mr. Gorham said there are two different ways to go about looking at the merger process.

“You’re looking at doom and gloom, but on the other hand you’re also looking at increased opportunities for students,” he said. “Both messages are equally valuable.”

Committee member Varick Chittendon noted that with an election coming up to decide the fate of the merger, now is the time to begin what is essentially a campaign to see the process through.

“If this is an election then this is an election campaign that’s preceding it,” he said. “We need to be given some good talking points if this is a campaign that’s going on.”

Prior to receiving the recommendation, the consultants presented a brief summary of information to be included the study, a draft of which needs to be presented to the State Education Department by the end of the month. The final version of the study will then be presented to both the Canton and Potsdam boards of education at a joint meeting set to be held on June 19.

Both boards would then have until October to decide whether to move forward with the merger. Should both boards agree to move forward, an advisory referendum will be held in early November. If both communities agree to the merger in that first, non-binding vote, a final, binding referendum would be held in mid-December.

If the second referendum also passes in both communities, petitions for board of education seats would then be circulated with an election to form the newly created board being held in February and the new district officially forming on July 1, of 2015.

While the transportation study ordered by both districts has yet to be finalized, consultant Thomas Coseo said the new district has all the resources necessary to transport students from Canton to Potsdam for high school and from Potsdam to Canton for middle school, without having bus rides that eclipse 65 minutes in length.

Mr. Coseo also presented a brief financial analysis that projects a 2015-2016 tax rate for a combined district that would be lower than the projected 2014-2015 rates for both districts.

Using current budget numbers Mr. Coseo projected a full-value tax rate of $20.15 for Canton Central School District residents and $22.69 for Potsdam Central School District residents.

Assuming 2 percent budget savings as a result of the merger, Mr. Coseo said taxpayers could expect a combined budget of just over $56 million in 2015-2016 with a full-value tax rate of $19.73 to support that budget, a number that could either increase or decrease based on decisions made by what would be the newly created board of education.

In a breakdown of how the district could use its $3.7 million in incentive aid, Mr. Coseo proposed using $700,000 for program enhancements, $1.7 million to build the fund balance and $1.3 million to help reduce taxes.

With projections showing that due to increased costs even a merged district would be using its fund balance by the 2018-2019 school year, one committee member wondered why the district would put so much money into reducing taxes versus building up savings.

“That would be up to the new board to decide,” Mr. Gorham said.

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