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Consultants tell Potsdam, Canton school boards merger study is about half complete

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POTSDAM - Board of education members from both Canton and Potsdam met together Thursday night to receive an update from the trio of consultants working on a feasibility study that’s exploring a potential merger of the two districts.

“We anticipate we’ll have a draft of the feasibility study concluded in May,” Roger Gorham, of the Western New York Educational Service Council (WNYESC), said. “We’re on schedule so I think that’s a doable goal.”

Mr. Gorham said the joint action committee, which has two meetings left, will wrap up its work on May 7, at which point he, Thomas Coseo and Doug Hamlin will compile the information gathered from the series of committee meetings into a report that will be sent to the state education department.

According to a tentative timeline presented at Thursday night’s meeting, the consultants will complete their work by the end of May with a final copy of the study being presented to both boards in June.

Once both boards have had an opportunity to review the study and hear from the people in their repective communities, Mr. Gorham said they’ll have to decide whether they want to move forward with the merger.

“Essentially you’re going to have to make a decision on what you’re thinking,” he said. “Either one of the schools could end the process and say this isn’t worth it.”

Should both boards elect to move forward, the timeline, which Mr. Gorham said was prepared by the state education department suggests an informal polling date of Nov. 6. If both communities agree to move forward, a formal, binding election is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16.

Canton Central School Board of Education President Barbara B. Beekman questioned why the schedule was spread out, asking why votes aren’t being held until late next fall. Mr. Gorham replied that the state basically considered the summer months lost time and wanted to ensure school was in session and people were engaged during the process.

Canton Central School Superintendent William A. Gregory said the calander will give both districts plenty of time to share information with their respective communities.

“We’re going to continue right up until the last day to get information out there,” he said.

If voters in Canton and Potsdam approve the merger, petitions for seats on the newly formed board of education would become available in January with a tentative vote scheduled for Feb. 24 to elect new board of education members for a merged district.

Mr. Gorham said the number of board members, length of terms and whether to stagger the terms will also be determined during that election with the new district officially beginning operations on July 1, 2015.

While members of both school boards and the joint action committee have been thinking about the merger, Potsdam Central School Board of Education member Frederick S. Stone Jr., said he doesn’t think the majority of the public has given it much thought yet.

“A lot of the public isn’t going to delve into the study until they find out whether or not the boards are even going forward with it,” he said.

Canton board member Victor Rycroft said he thinks the severity of the situation will start to sink in once the state’s final budget is released.

“If they don’t pay attention then, it’s never going to happen,” he said.

Potsdam board member Rachel Wallace said that the districts have to turn the focus away from saving money to saving education.

“There’s not that much money to be saved,” she said. “There are programs to be saved and educational opportunities to be saved.”

Ms. Beekman agreed.

“If you could buy a new car for $20,000, but you could buy a car with a luxury package for $20,000, wouldn’t you buy the luxury package?” she asked.

Mr. Stone said people want to be assured that a merger is going to be a long-term sollution to the problems both districts are facing.

“Seven, eight, nine or 10 years down the road are these programs still going to be viable?” he asked. If we’re going to be back in the same situation, I don’t think we’ll have the support.”

Potsdam Central School Board of Education President Christopher C. Cowen said it’s not that simple.

“None of us have a crystal ball,” he said. “If we had that, it could be helpful.”

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