By JIMMY LAWTON
POTSDAM – With the joint Canton-Potsdam school merger study past its halfway point, many community members are longing for more concrete details about how it would be implemented.
Residents want detailed estimates on cost savings, school locations, transportation logistics and a variety of other issues that have not yet been answered by the study.
At a March 19 meeting, Canton-Potsdam Joint Advisory Committee members said residents feel uninformed and frustrated over the possibility of a school merger, because they don’t know how it would be accomplished or what kind of impact it would have on the tax base and programs.
Consultants from Western New York Educational Council, Buffalo, asked committee members to share what they have been hearing from the public regarding the merger and the results were not enthusiastic.
“It seems like people aren’t thinking about it as much as they are feeling about it,” Banford Elementary principal Joe McDonough said at the meeting, help at Potsdam High School.
Where Are the Savings?
Committee members said a major sticking point surrounds the savings. People want to know how much money would be saved and how it would be accomplished. Members said there was a sense that if the new district would be using multiple buildings, and only modestly downsizing staff numbers, a significant cost savings would not be achieved.
This was highlighted later in the meeting when consultants revealed a merger would bring an estimated $773,220 cost savings from benefits and salaries and staff reductions of about 14 full-time equivalent jobs.
While the $773,220 figure represents the estimate savings from salaries and benefits, it does not include the total amount of savings that could result from a merger.
Consultants estimate the new district would require about 493 full-time equivalent jobs. Currently, the two districts have about 507, with 249 in Canton and 258 in Potsdam.
If the schools were merged the new district would also receive a front-loaded state incentive payment of $35 million over a 14-year period.
Consultant Doug Hamlin pointed out that while savings may not seem substantial, it would create a more sustainable model that offers a wider range of academic opportunity. He said the schools are currently looking at the merger because they are moving toward insolvency.
Potsdam High School Principal Joann Chambers said that as an administrator, she had been hearing some positive feedback about the merger, which would allow the schools to offer a wider quantity and higher quality of programs for students.
Canton or Potsdam High
High school location was another key issue. Many members of the joint committee said that people were concerned that the town that lands the high school would be the perceived “winner.” The fact that high school athletics programs would be held at the merged high school could make that town more appealing for real estates sales and new businesses.
Other concerns surrounding the high school stemmed from the identity of the township, which is often linked to the local sports teams and mascots.
The move to a single high school building would also mean vacant buildings in at least one of the towns, something residents fear could diminish nearby property values.
A student representative, Billy Sokol, said his classmates were worried about the larger athletic programs. They questioned whether students would be able to make the cut with more students and more competition.
Similar problems surrounded academia. Students with high grade point averages in their current district could be pushed down by others once the schools merged, something that could be devastating to students working for valedictorian status.
Following the discussion, committee members were asked to submit anonymous entries that stated which building they believed should house the merged high school, and why. However consultants did not share that information at the meeting, and said it would not likely be revealed until the final report submitted to the state in June.
A decision on the school location will likely be presented prior to the sharing of the poll results.
Busing, Fuel Costs, District Lines
Transportation times and costs were also a common concern, according to the committee members. Many people questioned how long their children would be riding on buses and if the increased distances would result in higher transportation costs.
Although the consultants have shown the merged district would actually be smaller then some existing St. Lawrence County school districts, firm answers on times and costs were lacking because it is still unclear where the new high school or middle school would be located if the districts merged.
With a plan to keep elementary schools in both communities, some parents were worried that children who had previously attended school together could be split up, based on a redrawing of district lines. However, the committee did not discuss redrawing the lines.
Let it Fail, Bankruptcy?
Committee members also reported hearing that some residents believed the schools should go bankrupt or let the districts flop and wait for the state to bail out the indebted district. The common question was “what happens when the money runs out?”
Consultants reported that this had happened in New York City in the 1980s and the schools were bailed out by the state, but added that there was no reason to believe the same would happen if Canton or Potsdam failed to meet financial obligations.
Committee members also asked if it was possible for a school to declare bankruptcy. Consultants said that is something Detroit is experimenting with now, but they were not aware of any instances where this had occurred.
While the comments in general seemed reluctant of a merger, consultant Roger Gorham said the comments were greatly appreciated. He said they would be used to target further research and information gathering.
He added that there was still much work to be completed in the study and more data would be available at the next meeting.
“Our role is not necessarily to advocate, our roll is to inform. This provides us with a good sense of where the community is,” he said.
Gorham pointed out that while there are many concerns surrounding the merger, the schools are discussing it because they cannot continue operating under the current model.
“What everyone has to keep in mind is what is the alternative? We have to create some context.”
The meeting included a line-by-line breakdown of staff numbers and related costs, as well as advantages and disadvantages of each high school building.
Gorham said the April meeting would include a similar break down of support services at each school.
A town hall style joint advisory committee was to be held Monday at Canton high school.