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Editorial: Drops in enrollment mean new realities for school districts

When economic conditions force companies to scale back or lay off staff, it’s euphemistically referred to as “right-sizing.”

Comparing public education to corporate America is apples to oranges, but in both cases economic realities dictate tough choices be made. Apples and oranges may grow on trees, but money does not.

Public school enrollment has been dropping for the past decade in New York State. In Erie and Niagara counties the decline is 8% in 10 years. As any taxpayer can tell you, public spending on education has only grown in the same period. Educating children is not an easy job; school districts have an array of challenges to meet. But the fall-off in enrollment needs to spark a debate about right-sizing, as in asking what is the right size for each school and district?

It’s a question being raised in the City of Tonawanda, where public school enrollment has declined nearly 20% in the past 15 years. City residents will vote in late October on a plan to close two elementary schools and consolidate the students in a third, Fletcher Elementary School, which would be renovated and expanded. The consolidation project would cause city residents to pay more in taxes for a few years, but would save money over time.

A Buffalo News story on the enrollment decline cited figures from the Empire Center for Public Policy showing that public school enrollment across the state is at its lowest levels since the early 1990s. At the same time, New York State leads the nation in spending per pupil. The U.S. Census Bureau, in its most recent available figures, said New York spent $22,366 per student in 2016, 90 percent above the national average.

There have been gradual improvements in statewide education statistics, yet it’s hard to shake the sense that state taxpayers don’t get a high enough return on their education dollar. Graduation rates have been inching up: The four-year graduation rate statewide was 80.4 percent in 2018, a significant improvement from 2008, when it was 70.9 percent.

Student test scores, measured in grades three through eight, made incremental gains last year, yet less than half of students are deemed proficient in English Language Arts and math.

No one wants to cut corners when it comes to educating children, but that does not mean there aren’t ways to trim expenses.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz made a proposal in 2018 for areas such as Cheektowaga — which is home, incredibly, to four school districts — to consolidate their administrations. Schools would not need to close, no teachers would lose their jobs, but administrative overhead would be reduced. It was a common-sense idea that went nowhere. That’s disappointing.

Closings of Catholic schools, of course, have been a frequent fact of life in the last decade, as enrollments dropped.

Consolidation and change also happen on athletic fields. Some schools join forces for a combined football team, due to a shortage of players. The News had a story last week about Frewsburg, which is transitioning to eight-man football instead of the traditional 11.

Changing demographics will eventually catch up to public school classrooms. One way for districts to handle staffing adjustments is through attrition. About 8 percent of school teachers leave the profession each year, according to the Learning Policy Institute. Only about 18 percent of those who depart do so for retirement. Leaving open jobs unfilled is for the most part easier than laying off teachers when downsizing is needed.

High taxes are a factor in driving individuals from New York State, whose population continues to decline. The state lost more than 48,000 residents between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018. With fewer students in public schools and fewer taxpayers to pick up the tab, it creates a vicious circle.

Creative problem-solving will be needed. Ignoring our education problems won’t make them go away.

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