Donna Villez teaches her second grade class about George Washington...

Donna Villez teaches her second grade class about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln at the Oquenock Elementary School in West Islip. (March 1, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

More than 70 percent of Long Island's public school districts show declines in elementary school enrollment in the last six years, according to a Newsday data analysis. The trend shows no signs of slowing, experts said.

Falling enrollment is an added complication for districts struggling with rising personnel costs, higher pension payments, unfunded program mandates from the federal and state governments, and the state-mandated 2 percent property tax cap. In some districts, it has led to school closures and trimming of programs and staff.

The drop in the number of students in kindergarten through sixth grade is primarily caused by lower birthrates, a stagnant housing market, escalating property taxes, a tight job market and an aging population, experts said.

"This is more dramatic than what has been seen in other times," said Joan Townley, a demographer with Western Suffolk BOCES, which has researched enrollment data since 1985 and forecasts trends each year. What makes it so, she said, are the repeated years of declines -- eight years in a row.

The BOCES demographers predict an additional 3.7 percent decline in the region through the 2015-16 school year, with the greatest losses in kindergarten through grade five. An updated report will be released this month.

Newsday's analysis of the elementary school years from 2005-06 through 2010-11, the latest data available from the state Department of Education's school "Report Cards," shows:

At least 87 of 121 districts Islandwide that serve elementary students lost students in grades K-6. (Three districts have only high school students.)

Enrollment in elementary schools was down about 5 percent overall.

Excluding six small districts where slight changes can skew percentage calculations, 21 districts recorded a drop of 10 percent or greater in K-6 enrollment. Twenty-three of those same districts had a 10 percent or greater drop in kindergarten through third grade.

Twenty-seven districts, excluding the smaller districts, reported growth -- but those gains on a percentage basis were not as great as the loss percentage in districts where enrollment dropped.

Four districts reported no noticeable change in grades K-6 over the six-year period.

The trend of decline is expected eventually to plateau, Townley said. But lower birthrates mean the number of school-age children is unlikely to rise as much as it did when enrollment peaked in 2004-05, with 471,380 students Islandwide in grades K-12.

The most recent Long Island figures show almost 25,000 fewer students since then, with 446,407 enrolled in K-12 in 2012-13, according to Western Suffolk BOCES.

Some districts already have made tough choices by closing schools or clustering grades differently. In the past two years, elementary schools in the Baldwin, Lindenhurst, Mineola, North Bellmore, Smithtown and West Islip districts have closed. In addition to the public system, parochial schools have seen a downward trend, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre closed six parochial schools because of enrollment drops.

Robert Hannafin, dean of the College of Education, Information and Technology at LIU Post, said Long Island is experiencing a "perfect storm."

"Taxes are high on Long Island, real estate is expensive and it is difficult for younger people to replace the older population," he said.

Fewer full-time teachers are employed on the Island. Their numbers dropped nearly 3.5 percent, from 38,236 in 2005-2006 to 36,930 in 2011-12, according to the state Education Department data.

West Islip is among the hard-hit districts. Enrollment in K-6 since the 2005-06 school year has dropped 13 percent, Newsday's analysis found.

This year, Superintendent Richard Simon said, there are 296 kindergarten students districtwide, compared with 470 students in the 12th grade.

The district closed two elementary schools last year -- Westbrook and Paul E. Kirdahy at Captree -- when faced with declining enrollment and a nearly $8 million budget gap.

"For our board, it was one of the hardest decisions they ever had to make," Simon said.

Portions of the two buildings have been leased to a preschool, a private K-8 school, a boxing club, a dance program and a child-care program that operates before and after school hours. Those tenants will generate more than $300,000 in revenue next year.


Districts of all sizes affected

The losses in elementary enrollment are in districts of all sizes. In Suffolk County, enrollment in sixth grade and below dropped more than 13 percent in the Three Village school district. In Nassau, Wantagh has recorded an almost 18 percent drop in grades K-6.

Fewer students also may mean fewer parents to support school budgets, at a time when a 60 percent supermajority is needed to go over a district's state-imposed budget cap.

Nationally, public school enrollment is forecast to grow by about 7 percent to 8 percent over the next decade, said Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The South and West have seen dramatic growth, but the Northeast and Midwest have shown declines.

School population generally goes boom and bust, said Jim Butterworth, executive director of the Capital Area School Development Association (CASDA) at the University at Albany.

Long Island public school enrollment started to climb in the early 1990s after two decades of decline. The increase, largely the result of baby boomershaving children, continued through much of the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Total enrollment statewide, after an 11-year upward trend, has declined since 2001-02, according to the state Education Department. Many elementary schools have closed as educators try to keep programs when resources shrink, said Butterworth, who also is on the faculty of Albany's School of Education.

"A lot of times what will happen in schools, if revenues stay healthy, that pretty much maintains the status quo," he said. "But when revenue is flat or your costs rise, or it is shrinking, you are forced into hard choices."

School closures and grade clustering offer districts some money-saving opportunities. However, Butterworth said, the savings are not one-to-one, because of increases in health insurance, pension and other costs. State aid plays a role, and many fixed costs, such as transportation, aren't affected by enrollment declines in the short run.

On Long Island, the stale housing market coupled with the recession contributed to the decrease in school-age children, experts said. The Island's population, on average, is older than that of New York City and the nation.

Known as a place where families came to raise children, a significant number of households are now beyond the childbearing years, Whitehurst said. Also, many young families in cities such as New York and Washington have been opting to stay put.

Hannafin said there still are "pockets of growth" on Long Island, particularly in lower- to middle-income communities.

In Westbury, the student population has risen 3 percent to 4 percent over the last five years. The increase runs across all grades.

That's not all positive: The jump is straining school finances. The district, which has operated on an austerity budget twice in the past five years, cut more than 20 teachers last year.

"We have no safety net," Superintendent Mary Lagnado said. "In the past, you could account for enrollment growth, but now you can't."

Center Moriches Superintendent Russell Stewart said his district has grown 5 percent in each of the last three years, with 227 more students this year.

"The cost of educating a student in Center Moriches has gone up, and basically state aid has gone down," Stewart said. "Because of that and our enrollment, we don't have the staff nor the space."

For the majority of school systems, though, the problem is fewer students.

The Middle Country district, with an enrollment of 10,319 in 2011, has lost 5 percent of its student body in K-6 and had to reduce kindergarten sections.

"It's a slow and steady decline, and it has impacted us," Superintendent Roberta Gerold said. In previous years, the district was able to add programs when there was a drop in enrollment. But with state-imposed financial constraints, having fewer students often translates to a loss of staff.

Townley does not predict a "bounce-back" anytime soon.

"You have the cost factor, the lack of affordable housing and rentals and the decreasing births," she said.

Groups such as the Island-based Rauch Foundation, which invests in organizations that spark change, and the Long Island Association, the area's leading business organization, are working to draw companies and young residents, Hannafin said.

"There are some really smart people trying to figure out what Long Island needs to do to be more competitive. There are a lot of large-scale visions and initiatives," he said, adding that "a response is absolutely necessary."

Declining enrollment should push districts to look at consolidating, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. In addition, the achievement gap in poorer districts must be improved for the Island to produce a viable workforce, he said.

"There is an expression in the academic world, which is 'Demographics is destiny,' " Levy said. "And in many, many areas of our lives it is true. Demographics is going to determine who they are going to be teaching and how many -- and eventually you have to have a system that is sustainable."

With Stacey Altherr

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