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Tue., Oct. 21
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Serving the communities of Massena and Potsdam, New York

Potsdam community offers district budget advice

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POTSDAM - Nearly 40 members of the Potsdam community gathered Monday night to listen to a budget presentation from Superintendent Patrick H. Brady and share their thoughts on steps district officials could take to close a roughly $1.2 million budget gap.

“We’re reaching out to the community to collectively work on this together, because we are working on this collectively for the kids,” Mr. Brady said. “We’ll have some difficult decisions again this year.”

At this point Mr. Brady said lots of ideas are being circulated in an effort to put together a budget the community can live with, while still proving the community’s children with a quality education.

“We’re thinking about a lot of different ideas and frankly at this point nothing is off the table,” he said, adding the district should have a better idea of their aid picture this year earlier than in the past.

“By March 21 we should know what the state is going to do,” he said. “They are likely to put out a budget earlier than April 1, because of Passover and other religious holidays at the end of the month.”

Based on the governor’s preliminary budget proposal, Mr. Brady said the district’s aid increase is, at this point, just over 1 percent, not nearly enough to even cover the district’s contractual obligations for next year.

Pointing to $75 million Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has set aside for education reform initiatives and $50 million he has set aside for competitive grants, Mr. Brady said given the fiscal crisis the state’s schools are facing that money could be put to better use.

“We don’t have assistants to assistants who can write grants,” he said.

Mr. Brady also noted that while the governor’s initiatives, such as a longer school day and mandated pre-kindergarten, are “good ideas,” now is not the time to be introducing new programs.

“But at this time when schools are drowning, we could use that money now,” he said.

As the district works to put together its budget, Mr. Brady said they have three things to consider - how much fund balance to use, how high of a tax levy to propose and what to cut.

“If this continues, we’re about two years from insolvency,” he said. “How much (fund balance) can we use? How much (tax levy increase) can the community take?”

Those were among the topics discussed by the forum’s 36 participants as they then broke into smaller groups to discuss their concerns with various impacts that budget cuts may have.

The discussions in those groups ranged from class sizes and employee benefit packages to potential cuts to cutting extracurricular activities, sports and electives.

Transportation cuts were also discussed, such as only picking children up in a certain radius from the school and eliminating the after school extracurricular bus runs.

There was also discussion on an option to relocate students from the middle school to the high school or vice versa.

“I don’t want seventh and eighth graders in here,” Wayne Green said.

Fiscally though, Val Chiarenzelli said it might be one of the best ways for the district to save money.

“It might be one of the most effective things you can do,” she said, adding the vacant classrooms could then be rented out to BOCES.

“When I was in school, the seventh and eighth grade was over there and we survived,” Al Pitts said.

Julie Helenbrook said moving students around is not something she wants to see.

“I would rather see a regional high school than a 7-12 in Potsdam,” she said. “I think the future is we have got to merge with another high school.”

Mergers and regional high schools generated some discusssion among the forum participants.

“Where we live, honestly, I don’t think it’s that bad, because I don’t think they are going to close Potsdam,” Ms. Helenbrook said.

Mr. Pitts said he thinks the savings from a merger or regional school would make it a worthwhile proposition.

“The money saved at the administrative level would be huge,” he said. “It’s got to cost a fortune to heat one of these buildings.”

Mr. Green said given the size of Potsdam’s building a merger with one of the smaller districts wouldn’t logistically be all that difficult.

“You could take Colton-Pierrepont in here and not even buy a chair,” he said.

Mr. Brady said he was pleased with the turnout for the forum.

“I’m very pleased with the support that the district received tonight through the many members of the community who came out to provide input on our budget and academic programs,” he said. “Collectively there were many great ideas and lots of questions about how we’re going to work our way out of our fiscal issues and continue to provide a strong educational program for our students.”

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