Declining Enrollment: Is it Time for School District Consolidation?

As Long Island school districts continue to massage their 2013-14 budgets, declining student enrollment casts a huge shadow.

About 70 percent of Long Island’s districts had a decline in elementary school enrollment over the past six years, according to a Newsday editorial this week that argued there are too many Long Island school districts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees, recently calling for more consolidation of districts throughout the state.

According to Newsday, the number of K-12 public school students on the Island has decreased from a high of 471,000 in 2004-05 to a projected estimate of 430,000 in 2015-16, a decline of 8 percent that is likely to continue. The drop in enrollment is due to a variety of factors, including a weak economy with slowing housing turnover, an aging population, lower birthrates, high property taxes, and a shortage of job opportunities.

For district leaders, dealing with the fallout from declining enrollment can be a very tricky proposition, and it typically leads to rancorous battles when school closings are proposed. Parents are often attached to their children’s schools and seldom appreciate a change.

The number of full-time teachers on the Island dropped 3.5 percent in the past seven years and in the last two years, at least six school districts have closed their elementary schools, Newsday pointed out. It says more schools are on the chopping block and that the “trend shows no sign of reversing.”

How school district officials and parents respond to these changes will determine the future quality of education here.

“We’ll also need more sharing of services, willingness to close unneeded schools and a plentitude of innovative thinking,” the newspaper argued. “In one sense, there is some good news: The decreases are significant enough that some financial savings can now be culled.”

In the last decade, school districts have been reluctant to sell their closed buildings. This is because districts that sold their buildings in the past often needed them just a few years later when enrollment picked up. District officials faced criticism and remorse when the buildings could not be reclaimed. But Newsday suggests that this would no longer be the case.

“That’s a harder sell now,” it said. “No one knows when or if the tide will turn, holding on to underutilized schools and property keeps them off the tax rolls. Beyond that, a building erected in the 1950s or 1960s might not be equipped with the infrastructure, like high-tech labs, audio-visual devices and computer wiring, to fit future educational needs.”

In addition, the entire way schools do business may change, the editorial suggested. For example, the three BOCES on Long Island have just started a cooperative venture to create online advanced placement courses.

“With pension and health care costs climbing, a property tax cap in place, and little or no new revenue on the horizon for districts, the time for change is now,”

the paper said.

One person who has long been a proponent of district consolidation is Martin R. Cantor, CPA, Ed.D., the director of The Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy. He contends that consolidation of Long Island’s school districts could save millions of dollars a year and would still preserve local control and save educational programs.

Under his proposal, the merger of dozens of local districts would allow the elimination of the vast majority of school superintendents, business and personnel officials. And he would give principals the power to budget and hire. He points to county systems in similar suburbs, such as those in Maryland and Virginia, which have comfortable, well-educated residents.

He argues that consolidation would not impact the students’ school experience but rather is a budget item “that has no role in the children’s education; in fact, it directs more school budget dollars to the classroom.”

“The plan preserves the neighborhood school,” Cantor insisted. “Children are not transported to other schools and districts. Nothing changes but better education at lower costs.”

To read his proposal, go to his website, and click the publication link: Town-Wide School Districts: 
A Case for Long Island Education at Lower Costs.

Become familiar with all of the issues related to this topic. Deeper cuts are on the horizon in all districts. Be informed, and decide for yourself what’s best for your children’s education!