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Canton school board president defends handling of Hermon-DeKalb merger request

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CANTON — Responding to sharp criticism Thursday evening, Canton Central School board President Barbara B. Beekman defended the board’s decision to informally discuss a merger request from Hermon-DeKalb Central School in private rather than during public session.

The request, sent last March by Hermon-DeKalb Superintendent Ann M. Adams, was first discussed at a school board officers’ meeting in spring 2013 attended by Mrs. Beekman, board Vice President Victor N. Rycroft and School Superintendent William A. Gregory.

At the following school board meeting, the merger request was mentioned to other board members in executive session, Mrs. Beekman said.

The request was not placed on the public agenda because Canton officials had already decided that pursuing a merger with Potsdam had the best chance of winning approval from the public, she said.

“We have two college towns and a preponderance of people who value education,” Mrs. Beekman said. “They are different than a farming town, for better or worse.”

Also, when Canton received the Hermon-DeKalb request, Hermon-DeKalb was pursuing the idea of a regional school district while also putting out merger requests to Gouverneur and Edwards-Knox central schools. Canton school officials did not write back, but Mr. Gregory told Ms. Adams that the Canton board was not interested, she said. Canton had already started down the path of examining a merger with Potsdam, Mrs. Beekman said.

“We thought about what would make the most sense,” she said. “It’s a long, involved process. We’ve got one shot here, and we thought about what was most likely to be successful.”

During public comment Thursday night, Scott M. Davis, Eddy-Pyrites Road, accused the board of breaking state open-meetings law by discussing the Hermon-DeKalb merger request in private.

“Not only does this type of action have the potential to open liability for this school or the board, it is the exact recipe for distrust and dissension amongst the board members,” Mr. Davis said, reading from a written statement. “At this time, you are in discussions of merger but now you have given the taxpayers of this district full reason to question the transparency of this board and its integrity.”

Mr. Davis first raised his concerns Monday during a town hall-style meeting about the proposed merger of the Canton and Potsdam school districts.

Mrs. Beekman said the board did not take any vote on the merger request in executive session, nor does she believes the open meetings law was violated.

“I think we’re a very transparent board,” she said. “I have no qualms about what we discussed in executive session. We are not illegally conducting business behind closed doors.”

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