Big jumps in school enrollment create big challenges. When head counts climb quickly, districts struggle to finance new schools and teachers. It can be even tougher, though, to deal with the finances when enrollments decline, and that's happening in the wide majority of Long Island districts. The trend shows no sign of reversing. How districts respond will be crucial to the quality of education here in the future. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pointed out Friday, there has to be more consolidation of districts in the state. We'll also need more sharing of services, willingness to close unneeded schools and a plentitude of innovative thinking.
In one sense, there is some good news: The decreases are significant enough that some financial savings can now be culled.
About 70 percent of Long Island's districts had declines in elementary school enrollment over the past six years.
The number of K-12 public school students on the Island peaked in 2004-05 at just over 471,000, declining every year since. Demographers estimate the number will sink to 430,000 in 2015-16, a fall of 8 percent that likely won't stop there.
Experts say this reflects an aging population, lower birthrates, a stagnant housing market that lacks rentals and affordable housing for young couples, high property taxes and a jobs shortage.
In the first years of enrollment decline, savings come hard. A K-12 district of 3,600 students (the average size on the Island) that suffers a 1 percent drop loses three kids per grade. That doesn't create opportunities to close schools or reduce the number of classrooms. That loss of students means the district gets less state funding, but no savings.
After eight years of such losses, though, that district has 24 fewer kids per grade. And in a district of 7,200 children (13 on the Island are that large), a drop of 8 percent means 48 fewer students per grade. At that point, eliminating classes and teaching positions and closing schools becomes possible, but much easier in the larger district than the smaller one.
The school closings and class reductions have now begun on Long Island, although not without some bitter fights. In the past seven years, the number of full-time teachers on the Island has dropped 3.5 percent. And in the past two years, elementary schools in at least six districts have closed.
In the past, when enrollments saw cyclical declines, some argued that closing, razing or selling schools could backfire because a district might have to build again when the tide turned. That's a harder sell now. 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.
Advances in education may help control costs and increase educational opportunities, but also change how the whole system operates. Just last week the first program to create online advanced placement courses began, a cooperative project among the three BOCES on Long Island. 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.
For Long Island, 124 school districts is too many. They often do things like creating new curriculums to meet national standards 124 separate times, for no good reason. There is too much duplication of administration and too little of the economies of scale bigger districts could achieve.
There will be fewer students, and dollars. That means there must be fewer teachers and schools, but the opposition to such shrinkage may be ferocious. At a time when it seems every job is getting more technical and all children need a top-notch education, the effects will be dire if this shrinkage is mismanaged. We are going to have to educate smarter by letting go of past patterns and embracing difficult changes. The number of children here is declining. We can't let the education they receive decline with it.