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Canton, Potsdam school merger vote could be held in fall

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POTSDAM — School board members from Canton and Potsdam were told Thursday night that a feasibility study exploring a merger of the districts should be ready in June and a binding vote by residents could be held before the end of the year.

The two boards met to receive an update from the consultants conducting the study. Roger Gorham of the Western New York Educational Service Council said the joint action committee has two meetings left and will wrap up its work May 7. After that, he and fellow consultants Thomas Coseo and Doug Hamlin will submit a report of their study to the boards in June, and it also will be sent to the state Education Department.

Once both boards have reviewed the study and heard from the public, Mr. Gorham said, they will have to decide whether 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 proceed, the timeline, which Mr. Gorham said was prepared by the state, 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 Board of Education President Barbara B. Beekman questioned why the schedule was spread out, asking why votes would not be held until late in the fall. Mr. Gorham replied that the state considers the summer months lost time and wants to ensure school is in session and people are engaged during the process.

Canton Superintendent William A. Gregory said the calendar will give both districts plenty of time to share information with their community.

“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 election scheduled for Feb. 24.

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 potential merger, Potsdam Board of Education member Frederick S. Stone Jr. said he doesn’t think the majority of residents 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 N. 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 H. 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 solution 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.”

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