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Consultants recommend Canton, Potsdam move forward with merger

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POTSDAM — A trio of consultants hired by the Canton and Potsdam schools’ joint advisory committee said Wednesday that they will recommend the districts move forward with the process of merging.

“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.”

Theresa Witmer, a retired music teacher from Potsdam, said anyone who wishes to know what will happen if a merger is rejected need not look far.

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

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

Consultant Douglas Hamlin said that if the Canton and Potsdam districts remain as they are, sports programs, kindergarten and other non-mandated programs all would be on the chopping block. Some districts offer only half-day kindergarten, he said, but no one has eliminated kindergarten to his knowledge.

Mr. Gorham said there are two ways to look at the merger.

“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.”

Prior to receiving the recommendation, the consultants presented a brief summary of information to be included in 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 then will be presented to both the Canton and Potsdam Boards of Education at a joint meeting set for 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 then would be circulated with an election to form the newly created board being held in February and the new district officially forming on July 1, 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 longer than 65 minutes.

Mr. Coseo also presented a brief financial analysis that projects a 2015-16 tax rate for a combined district that would be lower than the projected 2014-15 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 due to the merger, Mr. Coseo said taxpayers could expect a combined budget of just over $56 million in 2015-16 with a full-value tax rate of $19.73.

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