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St. Lawrence County school superintendents explore merger effects

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Cash-strapped school districts in St. Lawrence County have started to take a closer look at the pros and cons of merging, mainly because they no longer can rely on state aid to keep them afloat.

When 18 area school superintendents meet today, they’re expected to discuss a 13-page document prepared by Canton Central School District Superintendent William A. Gregory that analyzes how school mergers could affect the region’s public school districts and their students.

“It’s a very, very difficult process,” Mr. Gregory said. “The state is really forcing us to go this direction. I think we need to at least begin this discussion process.”

Among other factors, the report identifies the financial incentives the state offers to public school districts that proceed with mergers.

Those include an increase in operating aid each year for 14 years, beginning with a 40 percent increase for each of the first five years of a merger. That’s followed by a reduction of 4 percent for the next nine years until the incentive aid is phased out.

When school districts with different tax rates merge, incentive aid is used to even out and stabilize the tax rate.

For Canton Central, incentive aid would provide a total of $18.6 million over the 14-year period. The amount is based on the 2006-07 state operating aid base-line calculation for each district.

The incentive aid totals for neighboring central school districts that could merge with Canton: $6.6 million for Hermon-DeKalb, $7.9 million for Lisbon, $11.6 million for Madrid-Waddington and $16.7 million for Potsdam.

Potsdam Superintendent Patrick H. Brady said mergers offer financial perks in the short term, but districts have to consider the long-term costs.

“In the immediate there is a savings, but we’re also forced to look at whether we will be saving money in the long run,” Mr. Brady said.

From an academic perspective, he said, school mergers are appealing. Combined districts can offer more Advanced Placement classes, multiple foreign languages, more electives, stronger music, art and theater programs, gifted and talented programs, specialized services for students with special needs and student support services.

“The studies do show that school mergers are able to provide more educational opportunities or save existing ones,” Mr. Brady said.

Much of the data in Mr. Gregory’s report came from the 2011 consolidation and shared services report launched by St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services on behalf of the 18 component school districts.

Declining student enrollments over the past two decades means there’s enough space at existing school buildings to accommodate different school merger scenarios.

BOCES Superintendent Thomas R. Burns said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s visit to Potsdam last week helped convince him that the state has no intention of revising the existing state aid formula so that more money is funneled to high-needs school districts.

“It convinced me even more that he’s not going to address state aid or our insolvency issues. It’s not so much what he said, but what he didn’t say,” Mr. Burns said. “We are on our own.”

He said he agrees that districts need to take a proactive approach in devising a plan for the future that includes something besides cutting teachers, classes and programs.

Mr. Burns said he understands that consolidating school districts is a difficult option, because communities are wary of change and concerned about losing the identity of their school district.

“I think local communities have to go through the equivalent of the grieving process, including denial and acceptance. Nobody wants to give up what they’ve had,” he said.

The merger process takes roughly two years and starts with the school boards in the affected districts holding a joint meeting to decide if they want to proceed with a formal study. If a decision is made to move forward, a feasibility study is undertaken to describe how the combined districts would operate and the fiscal implications.

The state education commissioner would assess public support to decide whether to authorize a reorganization.

State law requires each of the school districts to hold a public referendum that allows community members to vote on the proposed merger. The final step involves the commissioner determining whether to proceed with legal steps to implement the merger.

“It takes a lot of cooperation, coordination and effort on everyone’s part,” Mr. Gregory said.

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