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Joint Advisory Committee holds first meeting to discuss possible Canton-Potsdam school merger

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POTSDAM - The extensive process of possibly forming a Canton-Potsdam school merger got underway Wednesday night, as a 28 -member Joint Advisory Committee held their first meeting in the Potsdam High School Library.

The work session was the first of seven that will be occurring monthly and alternating between Canton and Potsdam locations.

The combined boards of education met last month in the Canton High School Library to discuss the details of a feasibility study that will attempt to answer the question of whether a merger would enhance educational opportunities for all students, while also staying at similar or reduced costs to taxpayers.

The feasibility study is facilitated by Robert Christmann, Thomas Coseo, Roger Groham and Douglas Hamlin, consultants for the Western New York Educational Services Council.

They met with the committee members and various other school officials including Potsdam Superintendent Pat Brady and Canton Superintendent William Gregory.

“We are here tonight, all of us for one thing. We care about kids and we want to ensure that our kids, our students now and the students of the future in both our communities, are going to have the same or better academic services, the same or better opportunities and the same or better future that we’ve been able to provide up to this point,” Mr. Brady said.

Mr. Groham further expanded on the main reasons as to why a reorganization was being considered. “Why reorganize? Typically there are two major reasons. One of them deals with educational opportunities,” he said. “Generally, small schools suffer from being small. ... By getting more students together in one area, you can sometimes offer a course because you have enough student body to warrant that and to be able to pay for it than you would with a smaller district.

“The other major reason is because in some way or another (a merger) expands your capacity and quite frankly the first point speaks to the fact that districts who do merge, gain a pretty dramatic fiscal advantage for doing it.”

Mr. Groham also discussed the effect that a merger would have on the employees. Certified personnel in the former school districts would become employees of the newly formed district. Additionally, if administrative or teaching positions were eliminated, those with the least seniority within the tenure areas of the positions would be placed on a preferred eligibility list for a period of seven years.

The consultant also talked about how the prospective merger would effect employees other than teachers.

“With regard to non-teaching personnel, the Civil Service Law applies. Just as it is currently in your two districts, you would apply in the newly formed district as well,” Mr. Groham said. “In terms of the leadership positions, those superintendents of the former districts lack tenure status. ... So the appointment of a new superintendent is based on the new board of education that would take over. So if the decision of the community in both districts is ‘Yes, we want to merge,’ the first task is to elect a board of education and then that board would have the authority to go through the process of hiring a new superintendent.”

Mr. Groham added that the current superintendents would be allowed to apply for the new position and that their existing contracts would be considered a property right and is a binding contractual obligation on the new district.

Mr. Coseo explained the feasibility study that will be undertaken.

“The feasibility study, which is what we are going to do with your help - that feasibility study is required by the commissioner of education. ... The commissioner will want to know if this is a good idea, if it makes sense,” he said.

“So one audience for this report is the state education. The second audience are the two communities and the boards of education. So when the report is completed, our plan is to have it completed in May, (we will) submit it to the state for review and then it would go to the respective boards of education.

“The boards then have the study to share with the community and then they have to decide whether or not to go forward with it.”

He added that the feasibility study is required to answer two questions; “Can we maintain or expand the educational opportunities we have for students?” and “Can we do it for a similar cost or reduced cost?”

Through the possible merger, the consultants said that they would like to sustain the quality programs in the schools but also improve a declining enrollment rate for both. Canton’s enrollment dropped from 1,432 in the 2008-2009 school year to 1,318 in the 2012-2013 year, before going to 1,334 this year for Canton. Meanwhile in Potsdam, the 2008-2009 school year saw an enrollment of 1,471 compared to 1,321 last year.

On top of the decreased enrollment, the study is also being driven by a steady decrease in state aid over the past five years.

“The main reason we’re pursuing the merger is because in the last four or five years, our school district has lost a considerable amount of state aid. Over $9 million in aid that should have been coming to our district is not,” Mr. Brady said. “As a direct result of that, we have reduced about 25 percent of our staff and many programs. We’re very concerned that if something doesn’t change, that we will have to continue along that road and we wouldn’t be able to provide the quality of education that our community expects of our school district.”

“I think the primary reasons (for a merger) were highlighted during the presentation; educational opportunities and maintaining the programs that we have if not expanding upon some excellent programs. Also, (we want) to remain fiscally responsible to our taxpayers in that process,” Mr. Gregory said.

The next meeting of the Joint Advisory Committee will be Dec. 16, where the group will conduct tours of the Canton High School facilities.

The tentative feasibility study and reorganization calendar shows a potential new school district could be formed on July 1, 2015.

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