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Merger concerns raised Wednesday night in Potsdam

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POTSDAM - Questions on athletics and employee contracts were among those brought up Wednesday night during a public forum in Potsdam on the potential merger with the Canton school district.

A small group of teachers, joint advisory committee members and Canton-Potsdam residents gathered in the Potsdam auditorium as Superintendent Patrick H. Brady updated them on the merger studys.

A similar town hall style meeting was held Monday in Canton.

Following Mr. Brady’s slideshow presentation, a host of audience members brought their concerns to the table.

Rachel Atkins asked Mr. Brady how school officials would handle employee contracts negotiated before the merger.

“As soon as the new school is developed, we will start looking at contracts. The first step is that the employees need to get together and they need to decide how they’re going to be represented and then we come to the table and we start bargaining a contract,” he noted.

“Until that happens and until an agreement is reached, those employees will continue under their old contracts. So they would still have the same salary, benefits etc.,” Mr. Brady said.

“So you could have two English teachers side by side - one from Canton, one from Potsdam - and both of them under a different contract for that transition period.”

“Do you see any problems with that with resentment of one person or another? ‘This person makes more than me’ or ‘this person gets their health insurance paid for and I have to pay for my own.’ I can see a lot of resentment with that situation,” Ms. Atkins said.

“Our anticipation is that we will work to get that process through as soon as possible with both sides hopefully being reasonable about it. I’m not going to tell you it isn’t a challenge because it will be a challenge to take all of these contracts, ... but once a decision is made, then there is pressure from both sides to come to an agreement because they’re going to have to have a new contract.”

The negotiation of new contracts would include finding common ground in areas such as health insurance contributions, stipends and salary distribution.

The salary for a starting teacher at Canton Central is higher than at Potsdam Central. However, veteran teachers at Potsdam are paid more money than long-time Canton teachers.

Mr. Brady also said that despite some chatter regarding potential faculty cuts, the reality is that if a merger were to occur the district would actually need about 1.5 more teachers to meet its mandate.

Potsdam High School French teacher Danielle Wilson asked Mr. Brady about the possibility of overflowing classes with the potential merger.

“One of the things that you pointed out are the different opportunities that can be offered when you merge the two schools; a lot of classes that are offered at Potsdam as opposed to Canton and vice versa. But many of us are at maximum capacity for our class sizes. So when we bring two schools together, what new opportunities could we possibly offer if we’re already at maximum capacity?” Ms. Wilson asked.

“I think what you will find is that they’ll be some areas where you can’t add on, but there are opportunities, particularly within the high school program, for more students,” Mr. Brady said.

Potsdam varsity football coach Jim Kirka was outspoken about the impact a meger would have on the schools’ athletics programs.

“You mentioned athletics and how by being a bigger school district you would assume (the teams) would get better. I don’t know if anything has been discussed with the coaches but they would all agree on what success really is. There may be more opportunities in someone’s analysis, but there are so many kids going for these spots and the opportunities for these students to really play and benefit aren’t going to be there despite what some people may think,” Mr. Kirka said.

“It’s nice that almost every student can go out for a team and make it and they stick around with it because they have the opportunity to play. Win, lose or draw they were part of it. If you’re one of 50 versus one of 25, the odds of you being a part of it are going to go way down.”

With Monday’s state budget decisions looming, Mr. Brady said that for now the two districts have to wait and see how much funding they will receive for their 2014-15 school year.

“The reality is both (Canton and Potsdam) together have lost about 100 positions. We’re looking at projecting forward, ‘Where are we going to be?’ This is crunch time in state budget this week. We’re all wondering what the state is going to provide in funding. ... The essential question is ‘Does a merger allow us to sustain or enhance educational opportunities for our students?” Mr. Brady said.

If the two districts agree to merge, the state is supposed to provide $35 million in incentive aid over the next 14 years.

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