Enrollment losses grow worrisome
On Board Online • October 15, 2012
By Cathy Woodruff
Shrinking student enrollments are leading many local school leaders to consider choices that might have seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.
In the Hudson River city of Kingston, where enrollment easily topped 10,000 in the heyday of super-employer IBM, the number of students has dipped below 7,000. The school board voted in August to close three elementary schools at the end of this school year.
Erie County’s Kenmore-Tonawanda, which was among the state’s largest districts in the 1960s and 1970s with more than 22,000 students, now has just 7,300. An elementary school is slated to close next year, and the district is studying consolidation among Ken-Ton’s 13 remaining schools.
And along the Mohawk Valley, three longtime sports rivals – Ilion, Mohawk and Herkimer – gave a preliminary nod to a three-way merger during a straw vote last month. Residents will vote again on Oct. 18 to make a binding decision on whether to join into one enlarged district.
“I really think it’s statewide,” school demographics consultant Paul Seversky said of the pressure to adjust to fewer students.
Blame declining birth rates and fewer households with adults of child-bearing age, said Seversky, a retired superintendent and partner in SES Study Team of Canastota. Those national trends clearly are evident in U.S. Census data, he said.
In New York, the pattern is most pronounced north of the New York City metropolitan area.
“I know of no region of major growth north of Orange County anywhere in the state,” Seversky said. “There are some that are stable, and stable’s good.”
Eight in 10 districts in New York State lost enrollment between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 school years, according to NYSSBA Senior Research Analyst Paul Heiser. He looked at changes among 671 districts – all in the state with the exception of special act districts, districts with fewer than eight teachers and the Big 5 city school districts (New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers).
The overall loss during the three-year period was 3.2 percent, or 52,313 students, according to NYSSBA’s analysis.
[Visit the website of the Cornell Program on Applied Demographics at http://goo.gl/1r96d for a five-year projection of your school district’s enrollment.]
In an example of how hard the declines are hitting in the Hudson Valley, school officials in Kingston have made a painful and controversial decision to close three elementary schools.
Kingston’s enrollment has fallen by 1,300 students, a 16.4 percent drop, since 2004, and Superintendent Paul Padalino estimates that closing the schools will save $4.7 million a year.
Unfortunately, Padalino said, a large share of the savings will come from staff cuts, including 30 teachers. Meanwhile, the plan has raised concern among parents about longer trips to schools and changes in grade configurations.
On the upside, there will be more programs, more time for teachers with their students and more flexible schedules.
“We were running at 50 to 60 percent of capacity in our buildings,” Padalino said, and many staff members – including art, music, phys ed and special ed teachers and speech therapists – have been spending valuable time driving from building to building. “Now, these people will have ‘homes’ instead of working out of the trunks of their cars.”
“We will come out of this educationally stronger,” Padalino predicted.
In Kenmore-Tonawanda, it’s been a matter of choosing one’s poison to make ends meet despite enrollment drops. “We are sick and tired of cutting student programs,” Superintendent Mark Mondanaro said of the decision to go forward with a reorganization study that may lead to more school closings.
Mondanaro said Ken-Ton will save an estimated $2.5 million by mothballing one elementary school and cutting staff.
“We’re doing this because we are a district that has some financial resources yet,” Mondanaro said, “but we know if we keep going the way we are going, in four or five years, we are going to run out of money.”
Smaller enrollments have cost Mohawk, Herkimer and Ilion the ability to offer Advanced Placement, languages and senior elective courses in some cases, said Mark Vivacqua, district superintendent for Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES.
“To run an AP calculus class, you may have only three or four students,” he said. “This has to do with economies of scale. If you have too few students to warrant providing a program, it’s difficult.”
Remote, rural, single-building districts usually have even fewer options, said John Sipple, director of the Center for Rural Schools at Cornell University. Closing buildings and cutting staff may simply be impossible, and consolidation options can be limited by sprawling geography and reluctance among neighboring districts to merge.
The loss of just a few students can be quite tough on small districts, he said. “When you are losing students modestly, you are reducing revenue but you can’t reduce your costs.”
Seversky points to six potential contributors to enrollment growth:
- Babies born to parents already living in the district.
- Families with children moving into the district.
- New residents of child-bearing age.
- New students coming from home schooling and private schools.
- Dropout prevention.
- Enrollment of tuition-paying students from neighboring districts.
School districts and communities can work together to foster those trends and conditions, Sipple said.
“I often urge school boards and superintendents and principals to think about marketing their schools, working with real estate agents and chambers of commerce” to make the community more attractive for young families and employers, Sipple said. “I think school boards and superintendents should absolutely be part of the discussion of our economic future.”
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