Voters in Canton and Potsdam turned out in force Thursday to overwhelmingly reject a proposal to merge the two neighboring school districts.
Canton Board of Education President Victor N. Rycroft supported the merger and said he did not expect it be so strongly defeated. It was rejected in a straw poll advisory vote by more than a 2-to-1 ratio in both districts.
“I’m certainly surprised at the margin. I thought it would be a little bit closer,” Mr. Rycroft said Thursday night as he gathered with others in the Canton High School library. “We have a lot of hard work ahead of us to put together a sensible budget. We’ll be talking with the board and administration to figure out where we go from here.”
Driving the merger proposal was the promise of $35.3 million in state incentive aid over a 14-year period that school officials said would save programs and jobs, reduce property taxes and rebuild the fund balance.
Canton schools Superintendent William A. Gregory said he was “thankful” for such a large turnout.
“It was a pretty clear decision by the community, and we will certainly respect that,” he said.
The result means the merger proposal will not move forward to a binding vote that was tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16. However, the districts have the option of holding another straw poll vote if they receive approval from the state Education Department.
Turnout was heavy throughout the day in both communities. The 2,084 votes cast in Canton far exceed the 534 votes that were placed in the May budget vote.
Likewise, the 1,837 votes in Potsdam far surpassed budget votes that usually draw 700 to 800 residents.
As they left the polls, some residents were willing to explain their vote.
Carol T. Gable, the mother of a Canton high school student, said she voted in favor of the merger because she doesn’t think the state will rescue Canton or Potsdam from their fiscal problems.
“I think it’s the best thing for our students and our communities,” Ms. Gable said after casting her ballot. “The budget is going to decimate all our programs. I’m very concerned about it. I don’t think anyone is going to save us.”
Sarah Simmons, a Potsdam resident, voted no and said travel was her main concern.
“Winters up here are horrible,” she said. “I only live a little bit outside of town and sometimes it takes me 20 or 30 minutes. Imagine having to drive to Canton. I have friends whose kids are already on the bus for close to an hour.”
Eric Hewitson, Potsdam, said he voted for the merger, but described it as the “lesser of two evils.”
Another Potsdam resident, Warren Everhart, said he voted against the merger because he doesn’t feel it’s a long-term solution.
Gerald F. Whalen, 84, and his daughter, Martha A. Whalen, both said the high school is an integral part of the Canton community that needs to stay intact. They voted against the merger.
“A big part of a community is being close to your high school and coming up for activities with your family,” said Ms. Whalen, a 1980 graduate of Canton Central.
Mr. Gregory said if either district decided to consider merging with a different district, another merger feasibility study would have to be conducted.
With Canton projected to deplete its fund balance during the 2015-16 school year, he said he expects the district will have to make further program cuts next school year unless state aid increases substantially. “We know of no other viable options at this point,” he said.
Mr. Gregory said he doesn’t consider large school tax hikes as a viable option for the district’s financial woes.
“The negative consequences associated with proposing tax increases above the tax cap effectively precludes this as a possibility,” he said.
Combining students from Canton and Potsdam through distance learning is a difficult proposition, he said.
“Many classes such as science labs and other classes with hands-on components do not translate well to a distance learning environment,” Mr. Gregory said. “Staff supervision must be provided at the remote site. This negates some of the savings.”
Both districts would have to be on the same time schedule and have the same class period lengths, which is currently not the case for Canton and Potsdam. “This and other instructional considerations carry contract implications, as well. Additional resources may be required to set up the distance learning labs as well,” he said.
Thomas R. Burns, superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, said if Canton and Potsdam decide to hold another straw poll vote, state officials may require them to update the feasibility study before holding another straw vote to make sure the data is accurate. Canton and Potsdam school boards would also have to agree to hold another vote.
Various factors could be considered, Mr. Burns said, such as how much state aid gets allocated to each district next school year. A dismal financial outlook, he said, may prompt districts to put the proposal up again.
Johnson Newspapers writer Benny Fairchild contributed to this report.
After 12 hours of voting in a straw poll advisory vote, the outcome was 680 yes to 1,404 no in Canton and 558 yes to 1,279 no in Potsdam.
By Susan Mende, Times Staff Writer