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Potsdam school forum draws crowd of nearly 60

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POTSDAM - Prior to breaking into small group discussions at the Potsdam Central School District’s second community forum, Superintendent Patrick H. Brady gave the nearly 60 forum participants a piece of advice to help set the tone for the evening’s discussion.

“Tonight, pretend you’re a board of education member,” he said. “What would you do?”

The 57 forum participants were each assigned to one of eight smaller groups and presented two questions, asking their take on ways to fix the budget this year and in the long-term.

Among the items discussed by participants was their take on shifting students from the middle school to the high school and elementary schools, something that was strongly opposed by many of the forum’s participants.

“If we had to choose between reorganization and a merger, I think I would prefer a merger,” Kristin Towne, an art teacher at St. Lawrence Central, said. “If you merge at least, you’ll still maintain that (a middle school).

Todd Kaiser, who teaches at Potsdam’s AA Kingston Middle School, agreed.

“It would be difficult to see the success that this building has had disappear,” he said. “It would be disheartening.”

Adrienne Hartman also said she was opposed to closing the middle school.

“I would hate to see them close the middle school for a temporary fix,” she said.

Jennifer Moore said she grew up in Potsdam and recalled her days at AAK Middle School.

“I didn’t fall through the cracks, and I don’t want my children too,” she said, adding she’s afraid that’s what would happen with seventh and eighth graders in the high school.

“When my husband and I decided to have children, we knew we wanted to be in Potsdam because of the services offered,” she said, noting those services included offering a middle school.”

Participants were also surprised though, at what the actual benefits of merging would be.

In regards to the additional $1.7 million in aid Potsdam would receive for the first five years of a merger, John Easton said, “That’s really nothing. That barely covers the cost of unforeseen expenses.”

Several others in the group commented that with Potsdam’s tax rate being higher than most of the other schools in the region, there was little incentive for them to merge with Potsdam, noting mergers with either Colton-Pierrepont or Parishville-Hopkinton would actually increase the taxes in those communities.

“I’m amazed at what a temporary fix this is,” Ms. Hartman said, explaining that Mr. Brady’s presentation noticed additional aid to merged district is eliminated after 14 years. “In 14 years, we could be back here again.”

Another option presented to the groups were regional high schools, although at this time no framework exists to make one possible.

However, should such legislation ultimately be adopted, Michelle Leroux said that might be an option worth looking at.

“Number three (regional high schools) looks like the more palpable one, because it’s saving the elementary and middle schools,” she said.

Ms. Leroux though did say that she’s not really enthused by any of the options.

“It’s like choosing the lesser of the evils,” she said.

Prior to wrapping up their discussion, groups were asked to pick which of the three options they preferred the most.

“We could cross off one (reorganization of grade levels) for sure,” Mr. Kaiser said, adding of the three choices a merger might be the best.

“I think of what could be with number two (merging), if we could make something work with Canton,” he said.

Emily Hall, who is in the fifth grade at AA Kingston, and attended the forum with her mom, Lynn, suggested doing something like SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Canton are discussing and “sharing a president.”

That idea was embraced my several members of the group and is already in place at two school districts in Franklin County, where Brushton-Moira and St. Regis Falls share a superintendent.

“Does it have to be a full merger or could it be a partial merger?” Ms. Towne asked.

Ms. Hartman said her choice would be creating ta fourth option.

“My feeling is we need to put up an option four and sue the state of New York to fully fund education,” she said.

While that actually wasn’t one of the presented options, group members agreed that the state is actually the cause of the problem.

“Part of the problem is the state is asking us to fend for ourselves,” Mr. Kaiser said.

Ms. Towne agreed, “The problem is the state. There’s nothing we can do.”

Mr. Easton said he actually thinks the state wants to see some schools actually close their doors.

“If the schools close their doors, they would give kids money to go to neighboring schools,” he said.

Participants also discussed this year’s budget and what options they would like utilize to fix this year’s budget.

Choices included reducing health care costs, cutting athletics and extracurriculars, reducing transportation costs, use of reserves, increasing the tax levy and cuts to programs and personnel.

“I think health care is an issue, but there is nothing we can do until it is negotiated, so to me, it’s pointless for us to sit here and talk about it,” Ms. Towne said.

Ms. Hall said while changes to health care may need to be negotiated it’s important for the public’s voice to be heard on the matter.

“The negotiating would include some lobbying by way of pressure in the community,” she said.

Another forum participant said health care benefits aren’t something he wants to get involved with.

“I think the health insurance issue is between the union and board,” Mr. Easton said, before suggesting the board use its reserves to solve its budget woes.

“I think they should use it all now,” he said. “They’re saved for a rainy day and now it’s raining.”

Mr. Easton also said he would like to see the board raise taxes and present a budget that incudes no cuts to personnel.

“I’m totally against any personnel cuts,” he said.

Mr. Easton added cuts to personnel don’t only impact students and the people losing their jobs.

“These are people in our community,” he said. “Cuts to personnel affect the entire community.”

Ms. Towne also said she would support a budget with a tax levy increase greater than the tax cap.

Ms. Towne also said that she too would like to avoid cuts to personnel, and she thinks the community would support whatever they had to for the benefit of its children.

“If you go out and tell people this is what we need for out kids, it could happen,” she said, adding that it may be too far into the budget process to reverse course and do that for next year’s spending plan.

“I think it’s too late to make it happen this year, but for next year...” she said.

Mr. Easton again reiterated his stance and said as long as the district has money in it’s savings, he doesn’t want to see massive cuts being made.

“You might want to wait for it (fund balance and reserves) to get to zero before you begin dismantling things,” he said.

Ms. Hall said she would rather see cuts made to athletics than other areas of the budget.

“I like the idea of cutting some of the sports programs and doing some sort of community sports or merging with other districts to keep sports going,” she said.

Ms. Towne disagreed, “To me that’s a really important part of what being in a public school is about.”

Instead, Ms. Towne suggested changing the way interscholastic athletics were funded.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing a certain percentage picked up by a booster club,” she said.

Mr. Kaiser, a coach in the district, said there is a danger to removing sports from the school’s control.

“I feel like we would lose their potential, academically and socially,” he said, adding if the community was in charge of sports there would no longer be any academic requirements for participation, something that could send many students into a tailspin.

With nearly 60 participants in attendance, Mr. Brady said he was pleased with the evening.

“We had a very excellent turnout with valuable discussions on the issues facing our district,” he said.

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