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Canton-Potsdam school merger study raises questions

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CANTON — About 50 Canton-area residents turned out on a frigid night to learn about a possible merger between Canton and Potsdam school districts.

Many had tough questions for school Superintendent William A. Gregory, who started the 90-minute “town hall” meeting with a PowerPoint presentation to explain the merger feasibility study that is under way to explore the idea of combining the two neighboring districts.

Both districts are in dire financial straits, Mr. Gregory said.

“Over 100 positions have been cut from the districts during the last five years,” Mr. Gregory said. “We cannot maintain the status quo and continue to provide a quality education program for our students.”

The state will provide an extra $35 million in incentive aid over a 14-year period if the two districts agree to merge. Equipped with extra state aid money, merging would give the two districts a chance to preserve and expand academic and extracurricular opportunities for future students.

But some audience members were skeptical about the long-term financial benefits of merging.

Phillip J. Burnett, a former Canton school board member from Rensselaer Falls, asked how the combined district will be able to maintain programs and staff after the incentive money dries up.

“What happens after that? How will we be able to maintain that without a large tax increase?” Mr. Burnett asked.

Mr. Gregory responded, “That’s a huge question. I don’t have a good answer for that.”

However, he said efficiencies would result over time as faculty, administrators and other staff members retire and the overall workforce is reduced through attrition.

“There are efficiencies when you have a larger entity. That will be part of the analysis,” he said.

Other audience members were looking for assurances that a larger school district would not only meet the academic needs of students, but also provide the supportive, close-knit environment they’re accustomed to.

Nellie Coakley, a Canton village resident, said she’s concerned that creating a large distict increases the chances for behavioral problems like bullying and drug use.

“What does the student have to gain and what does the student have to lose? It’s not just about academics. We’re shaping the whole student,” she said.

Mr. Gregory said a combined district would likely be able to offer more counselors and other support services. Over the past few years, programs for at-risk students have also been lost due to budget cuts.

He recognized that the idea of dissolving two school districts and creating a brand new one is a “very emotional issue,” but he urged community members to consider what’s best for students in years to come.

“We have to stop the bleeding,” Mr. Gregory said.

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