Maybe you’ve noticed that the pick-up line at your child’s elementary school isn’t as long as it used to be. Or perhaps it’s been easier to find a parking space at Open School night.
After many years of steadily increasing growth, where school leaders faced the challenge of how to make room for what seemed to be ever-expanding student populations, now more districts confront the opposite problem—excess space.
A new report, “Closed Schools, Open Minds” from Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress, a Newburgh, NY-based regional planning policy group, describes the demographic shifts and the implications for local districts and communities. Turns out that between 2000-09, enrollments in the Hudson Valley counties (except for Westchester, which grew by 4.4 percent) either declined or remained flat. According to the Cornell University Program on Applied Demographics, this trend will continue through 2020 (Westchester is the only one with projected growth—0.4 percent).
“We had known that school enrollments were dropping,” said Adam Bosch, vice-president of research for Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress. “Our impression is that each county knew its story, but nobody had put together the regional picture.”
The declines aren’t in every district. In Putnam, Carmel lost 226 students, for a 4.65 percent drop. In Rockland, East Ramapo declined by 11.14 percent, with a loss of 1,006 students. In Westchester, there are pockets of dwindling student enrollment:
- Greenburgh, with a loss of 270 students or 14.26 percent
- Hendrick Hudson, down 77 students, or 2.77 percent
- Katonah-Lewisboro, with a drop of 119 students, or 2.9 percent
- Peekskill, with a loss of 170 students or 5.8 percent
- Pocantico Hill, down 53 students or 16.26 percent
- Yorktown, with a drop of 141 students or 3.46 percent
Fewer students mean fewer parents to support school district budgets. State aid is tied to enrollment, so declining enrollments also mean less money from the state. Those residents who remain in the district carry a proportionally larger share of financial responsibility for the schools. In the current economic climate, and working under tax-cap constraints, many school boards and superintendents have already cut staff positions, curricular and extra-curricular programs.
Some local districts have already closed, or are planning to close, schools, like Garden Street Elementary School in Brewster and French Hill Elementary School in Yorktown.
“The closure of an elementary school is very emotional,” said Bosch. “We want to ignite a conversation about what to do with these school buildings. Nobody’s happy with school buildings closing down. The dilemma is that there are not enough children for the schools. School districts are struggling with a difficult decision.”
According to the report, there have been at least 19 school building closures since 2009 in the Hudson Valley. While these closures offer significant savings, with superintendents estimating an annual savings of about $1 million for each closed building, the decision is complicated.
In the North Rockland district, for example, the decision to close, or repurpose, two elementary schools, Near Elementary and North Garnerville Elementary, resulted less from declining enrollment—student population has basically plateaued—and more from a need to cope with significant budget challenges.
"We had been hit with a $224 million tax action a few years ago," said Ileana Eckert, superintendent of the district. "We had been re-doing our program, cutting around the edges. This year we had to cut $9 million out of the budget. So we took a look at our practices, and how to make ourselves academically more efficient. Every crisis gives that opportunity."
The district expects to save $ 3.8 million as a result.
Working with four committees, the idea was to figure out the best way to work with fewer buildings, but be more focused in delivering academics, Eckert explained.
The three restructured elementary schools will now serve students in grades K-3, with the middle schools acting effectively as upper elementary schools for fourth through sixth graders.
"Our elementary school children will have uninterrupted blocks of language arts and math," said Eckert. "There will be extended time periods for the seventh and eighth grade. We're excited that there will be a better program, with a reduced tax for residents."