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Past Attempts to Merge School Districts Rarely Successful

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CANTON - Thirty two school merger studies have taken place in the state over the past decade, but only three consolidations were approved by voters.

The statistic illustrates that a proposed merger between the Potsdam and Canton school districts may be a tough sell, but not impossible.

Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services, said it’s too early to predict whether residents in those two neighboring districts will support or reject the merger when they head to the polls for the first, non-binding vote Oct. 30. The vote has to pass in both Canton and Potsdam before it can proceed to a second, binding vote scheduled for Dec 16.

“My crystal ball is as good as anybody’s,” Mr. Burns said. “It would be difficult for me to predict. As we get closer to the vote, I think we’ll hear more perceptions from the public.”

Since 2004, two school mergers and one school annexation have been enacted in the state, said Jeanne Beattie, a spokeswoman from the state Education Department.

Last year, voters in the Ilion and Mohawk central school districts, Herkimer County, agreed to combine into a new district called Central Valley Central School District. The proposal passed by more than a 2:1 margin, with 2,092 voting in favor compared to 867 against.

Also last year, voters in the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District, Montgomery County, approved a merger with St. Johnsville Central School by a vote of 385-366.

In 2008, Maplewood-Colonie Common School District was annexed by the North Colonie Central School District, Albany County. In mergers, individual districts dissolve and then combine into a brand new district. This is the scenario being considered by Canton and Potsdam. With an annexation, one school district, usually the smaller one, is absorbed by another district.

In April, the state’s Association of School Business Officials released a report that examined the history of school district mergers and obstacles faced in achieving them.

Michael J. Borges, the association’s executive director, said a variety of reasons has been identified regarding why school mergers have failed in many parts of the state, including fears about loss of community identity.

The reality that merging districts doesn’t usually result in a long-term cost savings is another factor that has prevented voters from endorsing mergers, he said.

“For a variety of reasons, mergers haven’t been overwhelmingly successful in the state,” Mr. Borges said.

He said his association believes the educational benefits that result from mergers should be the prime motivation for pursuing them. He said a merged district has the potential to offer more opportunities to students through additional classes, programs and extracurriculars.

“We firmly believe that improving education should be the primary reason,” he said. “To do it (a merger) just for the cost savings isn’t justifiable in many cases.”

Superintendents in St.Lawrence-Lewis BOCES had the chance to meet last summer with Cosimo Tangorra, who was serving as superintendent of Ilion Central School during his district’s merger process with Mohawk Central.

Mr. Burns said Mr. Tangorra discussed how the merger process played out and why he felt it was successful in winning approval in Ilion and neighboring Mohawk. Rather than focusing on the financial savings of the merger, school officials in those two school districts emphasized the educational benefits of merging.

“They never focused on the financial savings,” Mr. Burns said. “They focused on student programming. They never made the financial case as the primary reason for merging.”

Mr. Burns said he believes school officials in Potsdam and Canton have done a thorough job of disbursing information to the public related to the possible merger. Data collected for the merger study conducted by Western New York Educational Council was released through town hall-style meetings, newletters and the media. The report is also available both district’s websites.

Although the report recommends that the two district proceed with a merger, Mr. Burns said the document also identifies some of the challenges involved with combining two school districts.

“I think there’s good information on both sides,” he said. “You can’t predict how people are going to respond to that information.”

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