Canton, Potsdam and Norwood schools face new challenges as new session begins
Sunday, August 31, 2014 - 8:25 am

By CRAIG FREILICH

With their students returning to school next week, Canton, Potsdam and Norwood-Norfolk district administrators have been adjusting staff numbers and assignments as Common Core Standards requirements continue to challenge students and staff.

Potsdam will be trying some longer classes in the high school and experimenting with Spanish and French instruction in seventh grade.

At Norwood-Norfolk, enrollment is up slightly but they still have cut one teaching position for this year.

Meanwhile building renovations are underway at Canton and Potsdam schools and Norwood-Norfolk is preparing for building upgrades to begin next year.

But school officials still feel as if they are losing ground in their ability to educate due to several rounds of cuts to state aid.

Common Core a Priority

Teaching to the Common Core standards remains a priority for schools.

Canton Central Superintendent Bill Gregory said that their Common Core plan “revamps the ‘mile wide, inch deep approach’ in curriculum and textbooks and will devote more time to allow for reasoning, thinking and discussing, as well as the necessary hard work and practice necessary to master core concepts in English Language Arts and mathematics

“The focus of this year’s efforts will be to continue to align our curriculum with this core curriculum with a goal of achieving a coherent and fully integrated pre-kindergarten to grade 12 educational program,” he said.

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Pat Brady said that to help with the second year of implementation of the Common Core curricula in Potsdam, “many teachers have been trained as leaders to assist the rest of the faculty.” The training, achieved through a grant obtained by St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, will also help teaching literacy skills across curricula, not just in English but in the vocabulary of math and science.

Capital Projects

School building improvements are funded through other mechanisms, and the majority of those expenses are still covered by state government.

Potsdam Central is in Phase II of its $18 million capital project approved by voters in 2012.

In this phase, “we’re renovating the main offices in the elementary and middle schools to enhance security,” and working on lighting and heating to improve efficiency. Renovation of the high school auditorium is also part of the energy efficiency plan, along with rebuilding the stage and improving seating and the floor. “It’s not seen renovation in some time. It’s a central space for music and drama performances and for public meetings – a multi-purpose space.”

The program also calls for repaving areas of parking lots that were not improved in the last capital project. And the playground at the elementary school is getting new equipment to replace the 30-year-old set.

Canton Central’s two-and-a-half year $15 million capital improvement project is nearly completed, Gregory said. It has included new boilers, refurbishing middle school classrooms, locker rooms, high school bathrooms, sidewalks and the bus loop, and the running track.

At Norwood-Norfolk Central, with the approval in June of a new $13.5 million capital expenditure, “the district is pretty much abuzz with engineers, architects and surveyors, getting our proposal ready to submit to the state Education Department,” said Superintendent Jamie Cruikshank.

The work won’t begin before next summer, “but we’ve done quite a bit of preliminary work,” said Cruikshank. “The bulk of the work is redoing the heating system. Some parts of it are original to the construction of the building more than 50 years ago. We’ve since added the elementary school, so now there are two systems. It should be much more efficient with one system for all the heat and hot water.”

Other work will include more efficient lighting, improvements for disabled students and staff, some asbestos abatement, and “site work to improve the safety of the campus,” Cruikshank said.

Trying New Approaches

There are some new ideas that could improve student’s experiences and levels of success.

Potsdam is embarking on a couple of experiments in instruction.

Instead of all classes being the standard 42 minutes, Potsdam High School students will find some class sessions that are twice as long.

In the pilot program this year, some students will have the classes every other day that will be two regular periods long so a higher degree of concentration can be achieved

“There will be some block scheduling for some classes in arts, technical subjects and science, particularly courses that are hands-on and need additional time to finish projects,” said Potsdam’s Brady.

“Teachers brought the idea forward,” Brady said. “It’s something we’re trying.”

Potsdam Central is also offering a new course in seventh grade where students can explore and sample French and Spanish. While foreign language classes started in eighth grade, Brady says the new classes, every other day for the whole school year, “will give students time to be exposed to languages other than English so they can make more informed decisions about the language they would select” for further study.

Numbers of Students

It appears that enrollment at Canton Central will be down by about 30 students from last year’s figures, but the count can and probably will change a bit by opening day, Gregory said.

At Norwood Norfolk Central, Superintendent Cruikshank says enrollment there has been on a slightly upward trend, but they have still cut the equivalent of one teacher.

“Smaller classes have graduated or will. Elementary enrollment is strong, while pre-K is a little slim. Just looking at students exiting and entering, we’re probably looking at 15 to 20 more students overall, plus some transfers in and out, but those usually even out.”

“This year we’ve reduced staff by half a business teacher position and half a pre-K teacher,” said Cruikshank, and with reductions in staff over the last six years, amounting to 24 and a half positions, mostly teachers, instruction plans for this year are “pretty much the same, and considering the cuts we’ve had we’re happy with that.

Potsdam’s Brady says a bulge in population in the third grade has required hiring a fifth third-grade teacher.

“Class sizes were to be in the high 20s, but we’ve lowered that to more reasonable sizes, in the low 20s,” he said.

He said some classes coming up behind the third grade are also large.

“Class sizes had been lower – fewer than 100 – but they’re coming back up, so staffing plans have reflected that. We try to keep class sizes low in the lower elementary grades” so each child will get more attention, he said.

Budgeting Challenges

Since the state government cut its costs by cutting aid and shifting the expense to local districts, schools have had to make do with fewer offerings. Administrators are hoping the state aid situation can turn around soon.

“Recently the state announced it has a $4 billion surplus,” Brady said. He acknowledged that money is the result of a one-time set of penalty payments from big banks to settle allegations of wrongdoing, but he wants the money used to help school districts which have been shortchanged since the state reversed course on aid ordered by courts.

“We will be advocating for part of that to be used to reimburse school districts for funding they have lost since 2008” when the financial crisis hit.

He said he and colleagues will be pushing for the money to go to schools in the next budget cycle because after the one-time windfall, the state’s financial picture is not clear.

“Beginning this fall we will be advocating that the surplus go to education, to resume the ‘foundation formula’ changes ordered by the court to be more equitable for rural school districts,” Brady said. The formula was abandoned when the state found revenues dropping during the crisis. The state government in fact decided to extract money from the aid-to-schools formula under what they have called the “gap elimination adjustment,” which was designed to cover state budget gaps by shortchanging schools and creating local school district gaps.

Canton Central School Board of Education President Vic Rycroft addressed the issue in a comment in the school’s latest newsletter.

“We continue to have numerous issues with unfunded mandates thrust upon us by the State. I encourage everyone to reach out to our State representatives to let them know our school is vastly underfunded and on the edge of fiscal insolvency. Encourage them to support legislation to eliminate the Gap Elimination Adjustment NOW. We cannot wait for it to be phased in over three years,” Rycroft said.

N-N’s Cruikshank noted that a state court judgment ordered the state to fund rural and poor districts at a higher level than it had been, but that effort was abandoned in Albany.

“They froze the foundation formula in 2009 and the state hasn’t lived up to the bargain since, and since then we’ve been dealing with a significant backlog. There were emergency measures following the financial collapse, and we understood it, but how do they continue with the GEA when they have a surplus? That’s kind of a personal affront to me. Until the state equitably funds schools, we will struggle. Seventy percent of our funding comes from the state, and 30 percent comes from local taxpayers. So when there’s a cut in state aid, that significantly impacts our ability to fund education.”

Merger Question

Meanwhile a question dominating discussions at Canton and Potsdam schools is an examination of merging the two districts into one, which will be decided before the end of the year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that the solution to less funding from the state is mergers of school districts, and the state is offering monetary incentives to schools that embark on that course.

The two school districts have completed a study of the issue and, with the assent of both school boards, are moving toward a decision.

There will be a straw vote in both districts Oct. 30, and both Brady and Gregory say there will be more information meetings for district residents before then.

If a majority of voters in both districts approve of the idea in the straw votes, a binding referendum will be held in December.

Residents can see the report of the merger feasibility study and meeting notes at https://sites.google.com/a/potsdam.k12.ny.us/cpmerger/