By JIMMY LAWTON
If two schools merge, what happens to the buildings, the staff, the students, the programs and the tax rate?
Those are just a few of the major questions expected to be answered by a $48,000 joint study now underway between the Canton and Potsdam school districts. The second meeting took place earlier this month.
Over the past five years, both districts have suffered stifling cuts in state aid, declining student populations and growing costs.
“Both Potsdam and Canton have had to reduce staff and programs by about one-quarter. Our concern is if that trend continues we will not be able to provide our students with the education they need,” Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick Brady said.
Even mentioning the idea of merging schools can be difficult for parents, alumni and students, but so can the ever-increasing tax burden and dwindling resources.
Money, Buildings and Staff
While the study will determine how much, if any, monetary savings can be achieved by merging the districts, the State of New York offers a strong incentive for two schools willing to become one.
If Canton and Potsdam schools merge, the new district would receive $35 million over a 15-year-period.
According to Canton Superintendent William Gregory, the district would also qualify for more state aid, both for building improvements and school programs.
“Certainly there are benefits for combining the schools, but there are a lot of other things that need to be looked at as well.”
Gregory said the study will determine the best district use of existing buildings. Both Potsdam and Canton have recently undergone massive building projects and it is unlikely, but not impossible, that a new building would be constructed. Gregory said it is also unlikely that either building would be abandoned in the event of a merger, but the study will determine what the best options are.
“Where are my children going to go to school? That is an essential question for folks that needs to be answered,” he said.
One building could become an elementary or junior high school, while the other could house high schoolers. But that‘s only one option. Another possibility would provide for elementary schools to continue to operate in both communities, with middle schoolers in one town and high schoolers in the other.
Gregory said many possibilities will be looked at using cost savings and educational improvements as the driving force in decision making.
Changing where students will attend school also has many variables, which will need to be studied; transportation times, costs and bus route logistics will need to be explored.
Another major uncertainty surrounds employees at both districts.
Gregory said the study will examine in detail how staff members will be affected by the merger. Changes in staffing are often among the district’s toughest decisions to make.
The study will help the schools identify staffing numbers based on what positions would need to be added or abolished if the schools merge.
Brady says the districts want community input every step of the way since it’s the community that will have the final decision.
Western New York Education Services Council, Buffalo, is working with the joint committee to perform the study. Brady said the committee includes administrators, parents teachers, support staff, business owners, students and other stakeholders.
“This process has the potential to impact all of these people directly, so it’s important that they are represented in the discussion,” Brady said.
He said it can get complicated as many community identities are synonymous with their schools. Brady said he has watched other schools explore merger options and said it doesn’t always come down to what the study shows is best for the districts involved.
He said some districts have opted to remain separate despite studies showing potential savings and educational improvements under a merger.
“There is a lot of history in each community with schools. There are many cases where there is a great benefit shown in the study, but the communities have chosen not to merge,” he said
In the end the decision is up to the voters living inside the merged district, but the process leaves a lot of room for the no vote to emerge victorious.
In order to merge the districts, both school boards would have to agree the outcome is in the best interest of their districts and vote to hold a straw poll.
At that point residents within the proposed school district would vote in a non-binding election. Then, if the straw vote favors a merger, an official vote would be held. Approval in the official vote would allow the plan to move forward.
This means the process could be stopped by the either school board before coming to a vote and would have to be approved twice by voters in order to take effect.
Both Gregory and Brady agree that the discussion of a merger is not easy. But schools are moving quickly toward insolvency and there are few, if any, options that can stop the tide of change, the superintendents say.
Brady says changes to the state aid formula could bring more money into the schools and that rural districts need to continue lobbying for more equal distribution of state funding, but that doesn’t appear to be coming fast enough.
“There was a study in 2010 commissioned by all school districts to look at various options for maintaining solvency. The fact of the matter is, our costs, which we have largely little control over, are continuing to rise and we are receiving less than we did in 2008 and 9,” he said
Gregory said both districts are on a cliff.
“We've lost 50 positions of staff and faculty over last few years, I cannot lose another teacher and put together a master teaching schedule,” he said. “We have four teachers per grade level. We had six or seven four years ago. Our class sizes are all in the 20s, most are mid and upper 20s. We really don’t have a lot of options,” he said.
Gregory said regardless of what the study shows, the schools must continue to look for ways to stay solvent.
“It’s critical to have quality schools in our communities. We are at a point right now where we really can’t afford to lose another teacher. We have to look at other options and the merger is one of them. We are going to take a close look at this and see if it’s practical,” he said.
Both schools received $25,000 state grants to perform the study. Another $25,000 grant has been promised to the schools by the NYS Department of State to cover any additional costs, but it has not been received yet.