Excelling in Leadership: Personal and professional growth bonds NNY businesses, communities

Kylie Peck, President & CEO of the Greater Watertown North Country Chamber of Commerce, helps to coordinate the Jefferson Leadership Institute .

[Read more…]

Internship Savings: SUNY Potsdam’s Center for Applied Learning generates $550,880

Toby White, Director of Experiential Education,provides students looking for internships acquire more information and resources.

[Read more…]

ESPRI Taking Shape in Helping Reduce Area Poverty

Eric J. Hesse, right, New York State Division of Veterans Affairs director, earlier this year met with community advocates during a training session for the Watertown Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. Hesse, a retired colonel who spent 10 of his 26 years in the military at Fort Drum, outlined the state’s role in helping the local ESPRI effort. Meeting with him were task force chairs, left to right, Kevin Hill, Workforce Development, Krystin LaBarge, Education, Carolyn Mantle, Education vice chair, John Bonventre, Transportation, and Angie King, Housing.

[Read more…]

Serving the North Country: CCE of Jefferson County isn’t just about agriculture; programs serve thousands of residents.

Kevin Jordan, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County

[Read more…]

July Small Business Startup: Stitches & Pics

Stephanie Shively is the owner of Stitches & Pics in Sackets Harbor.

[Read more…]

Learning and Leading a Sustainable Path

Students take notes in their biology class on top of Whiteface Mountain as part of their required curriculum.

[Read more…]

JCC establishing new program for ex-soldiers with council funding

"Education" Button on Modern Computer Keyboard.

[Read more…]

North country faces obstacles in establishing charter schools

JASON HUNTER / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.

Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.


About 92,000 students attend charter schools statewide, but efforts to establish the innovative publicly funded educational system have yet to gain traction in the north country.

Since the state Legislature approved charter schools in 2001, there have been more than 400 schools authorized by the state Board of Regents to operate. According to the state Education Department, 34 charter schools have opened and closed since 2001, leaving 269 in operation as of mid-September.

The majority of the schools are in the New York City area. There are none in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence or Oswego counties. The closest such schools to the area are in Syracuse and Utica. According to area educators, none are currently on the drawing board for the four-county area.

The lack of a viable charter school is not because the idea hasn’t been considered, however.

Within the past five years, a group of educators in St. Lawrence County surveyed the community to gauge interest in starting a charter school in the north country.

The group looked for an avenue in which it could promote problem-based learning, a less structured learning environment in which students don’t rely on lectures and instead are involved in more hands-on activities, field trips and projects that use technology. A charter school seemed to fill those requirements.

“Problem-based learning is all the skills students need to learn to achieve great things in the world, in the workplace and in their lives,” science consultant at St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES David P. Lennox said. “The students are evaluated but not necessarily graded, just like we are in the real world.”

Because this type of learning isn’t available to students attending public schools, at least not in Northern New York, it was proposed a charter school be set up in Potsdam. One idea was to have the charter school implemented as part of Potsdam Central School.

Although the movement stirred early excitement among those in the educational field, it arrived stillborn.

Mr. Lennox, who campaigned for a north country charter school, said state funding is available for the development of new charter schools.

“We were looking at that as an avenue for funding,” said Mr. Lennox. “My plan was to have a school within a school, effectively within the public school arena, working with our public schools.”

However, when the state pulled out of funding such a project, the group of educators withdrew its application.


According to District Superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Thomas R. Burns, who was also involved with the charter school movement in the north country, the suffering economy in the region (and beyond) continues to hinder the ability of parents to go the nonpublic-school route for their children.

“The economic situation here has not been conducive to parents having extra income to spend on charter school tuition,” Mr. Burns said.

Because of this, enrollment numbers would be low. Since revenue comes to charter schools on a per-pupil basis, the group of educators was deterred from starting a charter school.

“Given the economy in Northern New York and the continuing drops in enrollment, this is a huge disincentive, rather than an incentive, to forming charter schools here,” Mr. Burns said.

According to Mr. Burns, the process involved with starting a charter school was an unforeseen paperwork venture the group didn’t plan to embark upon.

“A considerable amount of planning needs to be done prior to even submitting the application,” he said. “They had done some initial brainstorming but once they determined how much work was involved, they simply could not get it done with the few individuals they had.”

That being said, Mr. Burns is still interested in the idea of problem-based learning.

“We (at BOCES) have always been interested in the possibility of magnet programs or other regional, themed programs,” Mr. Burns said. “However, these types of programs do not have to be exclusive of the public school system, and in fact are not in other states and parts of the country.”

Mr. Lennox said he will probably not continue to pursue starting a charter school, but is still doing what he can to promote a problem-based learning program.

“I fully believe our education system needs to change and there are so many good models out there,” he said. “But trying to change public education is like trying to push a freight train — it is not easy.”


One of the obstacles faced in establishing a charter school in the north country is its rural nature, according to Stephen J. Todd, superintendent of Jefferson-Lewis BOCES. He said the area simply lacks the population concentration of urban areas to make a charter school geographically feasible.

“In rural parts of the state, our folks are more spread out and logistically it’s just harder to make it happen here,” he said. “The logistical challenges, at the end of the day, prove to be too daunting.”

He said the quality of public schools in the area has also served as a deterrent to any widespread movement to explore other options.

“People have choices that are serving their children well,” Mr. Todd said. “When you’re happy with these options, you don’t look for other options.”

He said in Jefferson County, there is a parochial school option — Immaculate Heart Central — that presents a viable alternative for parents.

“They are an excellent school and they dovetail nicely into what we do in the public schools,” Mr. Todd said.

IHC is a private Catholic school system in Watertown started in 1881 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who remain involved in its operation today. The school system receives no state aid, although public school districts do provide students from their home districts with books and transportation. Its primary funding comes from tuition and support from Watertown’s four Catholic churches.

The system has about 250 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through sixth and an equal number in grades seven through 12, according to Robert Piddock, IHC’s director of advancement. Even though it is a religious school, it also offers a strong secular curriculum, with a quarter of its students being non-Catholic. It serves the entire Jefferson County area.

“We get students from Belleville Henderson to the south, Carthage, Indian River. It’s much more than just the Watertown city area,” Mr. Piddock said.

Mr. Todd said that while the parochial schools are a good fit with public schools, he does have some issues with the charter school movement, which can be overseen by colleges or a nonprofit organization, but can also be run by private corporations.

Charter schools can be more selective than public schools in regard to students enrolled there, he said, and he questions the transparency of a school that, while relying on taxpayer funding, designs its own educational programs.

“I have always personally been a little uncomfortable with a for-profit entity being involved with a public entity,” he said. “If public dollars are being used, it is important to know that these dollars are going for a public purpose.”

He also expressed concerns about potentially drawing resources away from public schools at a time when districts are already struggling to meet budgets.

“The challenge is when a student enrolls in a charter school within the territory of public schools, it does draw resources away from public schools,” Mr. Todd said. “The idea of introducing another system that competes for funding often presents financial challenges to the public schools.”


Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has made her opposition to charter schools known, most notably by pushing against a $500 Education Investment Tax Credit proposed in the 2015 state budget by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for parents earning less than $60,000 a year who send their children to private schools. It never made it past negotiations.

Mrs. Russell said charter schools were supposed to be a relatively short-term experiment in the state to allow educators a chance to try new educational approaches and figure out better ways to educate disadvantaged children, with the goal of closing the education gap between these students and students in more affluent areas.

“That was a laudable goal, but it’s now been hijacked by people who are turning it into a moneymaking enterprise,” she said.

Mrs. Russell said despite the goal, the gap has not narrowed and students in charter schools have fallen further behind their public school peers.

Her challenger, Republican John L. Byrne III, Cape Vincent, said in a prepared statement that he supports charter schools and the Education Investment Tax Credit.

“Charter schools allow for the same type of innovative practices as our public schools,” Mr. Byrne said. “They allow teachers to adjust their curriculums as needed depending on each student’s individual needs. They foster an environment to create their own unique identity like public schools.”

He said the tax credit provides scholarships to children of low- and middle-class families and also provides funding for public and private education.

“While we are very blessed to have such strong schools here in the North Country and do not have any charter schools locally, they do play a role in the development of our youth in other communities across the state,” Mr. Byrne said. “Albany should be doing what it can to help provide as many opportunities for our children to succeed and charter schools are certainly one avenue to do that.”

Mrs. Russell, however, claims that some charter schools have hired teachers without college degrees or formal training, or minimal training in the content they are teaching.

“The authority given to charter schools was to come up with best practices and then have these adopted by the rest of the education system,” she said. “They were given a tremendous amount of flexibility in order so that they could have the ability to do something innovative and outside the box. Now, that flexibility has been used to degrade the educational rigor in these schools.”

“Charter schools have just been overtaken and twisted into something beyond what was originally envisioned,” Mrs. Russell added.

Mrs. Russell’s position has drawn fire from New Yorkers for Independent Action, a well-funded political action committee that has launched negative ads against her in her re-election campaign against Mr. Byrne.

“The charter school system has really been a big-money enterprise run by corporations where they pay the administrators obscene salaries at the expense of the caliber of faculty and staff and, therefore, at the expense of the students’ education,” Mrs. Russell said. “Many charter schools don’t hire staff with the type of background and training that you would expect in a public school system.”

“Their test scores are nothing to write home about and they have historically excluded children with learning disabilities, or other disabilities, from their schools,” she added.

That formula short-changes public schools, as financial resources that could go to a public school system are diverted to charter schools.

“It further concentrates these students in the public school system, who at the same time are being deprived of funding in order to fund these schools,” she said.

Mrs. Russell also believes charter schools negatively affect enrollment at parochial schools near where they are established.

“Every time a charter school opens, a parochial school closes,” she said. “I think we have a strong affinity for our parochial schools in the north country, so that would also be a deterrent for charter schools coming into the area.”


One alternative to attending public school in the north country is attending a private school, such as Little River Community School, located five miles south of Canton adjacent to Birdsfoot Farm.

The school, which is accredited by the state Board of Regents, began admitting students in 1999. The four-student school grew into a 12-student school within the first year. The school now teaches 41 students.

“It’s been growing very slowly, incrementally,” said Steven A. Molnar, director and teacher of the four-room school.

The school’s philosophy reflects back to the problem-based learning model Mr. Lennox attempted to introduce in Potsdam.

“I think the families really embrace our philosophy and complement that with their home life,” Mr. Molnar said. “We’ve got values of caring for people, caring for the planet and learning how to be sustainable, and I think they leave here with strong basic academic kinds of skills mostly because of the small class sizes.”

Mr. Molnar said parents and teachers develop individualized curriculums with each student. Along with learning basic skills — such as math, reading and writing taught in classes of four to eight students or even individually — students come together several times a week for democratic-style group discussions. They also participate in many hands-on activities, including working on Birdsfoot Farm and going on field trips.

Enrollment numbers increase every year despite the suffering economy, Mr. Molnar said.

According to the school’s website, tuition at Little River costs $5,138 per school year, or $571 paid monthly over the nine-month school year.

“We try to make it as affordable as we can,” he said. “We have a low tuition which means our teachers get paid significantly lower than a public school.”

Mr. Molnar said his school is successful because, since it doesn’t receive money from the state, it doesn’t need to follow as many regulations.

“Since we aren’t asking for money, we get the independence. A charter school probably gives up some independence because at the end of the day, they’re still a public school and they still have the mandates a public school has,” he said. “Is it going to work for everybody? No. And I wouldn’t even suggest using this model for others because we’re such a small school. The families put out a lot to be here and we recognize that.”

Government largest employer in St. Lawrence County

CANTON — By far, the greatest number of jobs in St. Lawrence County are in the government sector, which also provides the second highest average salaries, according to a new economic development report. [Read more…]

Canton, Potsdam voters overwhelmingly reject merging school districts

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