Sunday, November 25, 2018

School Closures in the Adirondacks and Rural America

NYS education at a glance courtesy NYS Education DepartmentOne refrain I have heard from Adirondack leaders through the years is that declining school enrollments across the Adirondacks, with particular emphasis on the closures of the Piseco School and Lake Clear School, show the overall decline of the Adirondacks as a viable social and economic region. Blaming environmental policies immediately follows these statements. I have always argued back that there are many factors that affect school enrollment levels and that the changes afoot in the Adirondacks are far less severe than the changes that are transforming vast portions of Rural America.

I have friends in Vermont, one of whom is a school board member, and I have followed his experiences. In many ways their rural lives are similar to my life in Blue Mountain Lake, but in many ways their lives are very different. The biggest difference is that they live in Vermont, which means they live a fantasy life in a fully functioning modern state and civil society. Vermont is calmly in the midst of a major upheaval caused by aggressive school consolidations and closures. Many rural schools in Vermont, many of which are K-12s similar to many Adirondack schools, are closing as communities have approved consolidations.

In the 2017-18 academic year there were 78,733 K-12 students enrolled in Vermont schools. Over 67% of these students are in school districts that are changing through consolidation. Vermont has a strong state role in public education. The state is divided into three dozen Supervisory Unions (SUs), which oversee various school districts. One school district may have several schools, while others are single-district K-12s. In 2015, Vermont passed Act 46, which eliminated and combined some of the SUs, and provided a raft of incentives for school district consolidation. Though this legislation impacted over two-thirds of Vermont school kids, it passed and has been fully implemented over the past three years.

It’s hard to imagine this kind of top down decision-making in New York. It’s hard to imagine this kind of legislation that changed school systems for two-thirds of the state’s school kids ever getting traction in New York.

The changes in Vermont have been sweeping. 151 school districts were merged into just 38. A dozen of the regional SUs were eliminated or redrawn. Vermont felt pressed to action. School enrollment in Vermont peaked at 105,000 in 1996 and has dropped to 78,000 today, but the driving theme was to strengthen and improve the educational experience for students. School enrollment is predicted to continue to fall to the mid- or low-70,000s by 2026. The big challenge was to take action to make schools stronger and educational opportunities better in the face of sustained falling enrollments.

It’s not just Vermont. From 1990 to 2002, over 300 schools were closed in West Virginia. In Arkansas, more than 100 schools were closed between 2004 and 2011. Robert Wuthnow, a legendary sociologist from Princeton University who studies Rural America, found that over 7,000 out of 18,000 rural schools were closed across the U.S. since 1990.

The National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Institute of Education Sciences, recently published its 45th report on secondary school enrollments across the U.S. This report found that the number of school age kids is growing in the U.S. and is predicted to continue to grow. Across the U.S. the total number of kids enrolled in public schools now tops 50 million and is predicted to top 51.7 million by 2026. There are also some 5 million kids in private schools, though these numbers have come down from over 6.3 million in 2014. It’s estimated that there will be 5.1 million kids in private schools by 2026.

Student enrollment gains and loses are not shared equally among the states. 21 states are expected to lose students between now and 2026. Of these 21, 10 are expected to see loses of over 5%. States with projected major loses are Mississippi, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The southeast U.S., Texas, the southwest, and west are all projected to see school enrollment increases, though much of these gain will be in metropolitan areas.

New York is among 11 states that is predicted to lose between 0-5% of its current enrollment. Every state in the northeast U.S., from New Jersey and Pennsylvania north to Maine, is expected to see a drop in school enrollments. Every state that surrounds New York is expected to see a decline in school enrollments. In New York, there are 1 million fewer school students today than there were in 1970.

In New York, school closure and consolidation has been a third-rail issue that politicians in Albany fear to touch. It’s also been a challenging issue for local communities to grapple with in Upstate New York and the Adirondacks, where all but a handful of school districts are seeing drops. We’re seeing the challenges of this decision play out in Westport and Elizabethtown now, where these communities have strongly backed a thoughtful merger plan with a final vote looming in December. The communities of Westport and Elizabethtown are not alone. This is likely just the first of a number of significant consolidations across the Adirondacks and Upstate New York, where school enrollments have dropped dramatically in recent years and are projected to continue to drop in the years ahead.

Photo courtesy NYS Education Department.

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Peter Bauer

Peter Bauer is the Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

He has been working in various capacities on Adirondack Park environmental issues since the mid-1980s, including stints as the Executive Director of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks and FUND for Lake George as well as on the staff of the Commission on the Adirondacks in the Twenty-First Century. He also worked at Adirondack Life Magazine. He served as Chair of the Town of Lake George Zoning Board of Appeals and has served on numerous advisory boards for management of the Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve.

Peter lives in Blue Mountain Lake with his wife and two children, enjoys a wide variety of outdoor recreational activities throughout the Adirondacks, and is a member of the Blue Mountain Lake volunteer fire department.

Follow Protect the Adirondacks on Facebook and Twitter.




7 Responses

  1. thomas h prevost says:

    I agree with Paul, consolidation is the way to go where feasible. An example would be Inlet school which hires 9 full time and 4 part time staff for 11-12 students. But for the most part it may not feasible. This is due to the density population and demographics.
    How many hours on a bus can one expect of students? How would students from the far reaches of Long Lake school get to Webb school or Tupper Lake or Indian Lake? Indian Lake to Wells, or Long Lake. We will continue to see decline in populations.
    Ocean cruises and life styles have changed our tourism for the worst. Companies have exploited our natural resources(wood, minerals). What is left is low paying seasonal retail. What we have historically done is put every last tax dollar attempting to save the dying tourism. The most day traffic is a constant that will remain independent of any influx of tax money).
    If we wish to hold our school population a a constant, we need to increase year round employment. What is needed is to develop alternative jobs and invest in the infrastructure to make them a reality. How can we develop the 87 beltway to provide green manufacturing. What about companies i.e marketing, engineering, mail order etc in the interior? Roads utilities, etc need to developed to gain access and encourage this type of development.

    What is needed is for the Adirondack Council or similar entity to develop an economic map of the Adirondacks. Decide what is best for each area. I.e. Old Forge and Lake George-day use. North Creek, Tupper and Lake Placid- condos. Saranac- cottage industry. Towns along 87 cottage industry. Then decide what infrastructure needs have to be addressed to make it a reality. Then go after the funds. Individual communities do have have the resources to make this happen. Or it be done in a non feasible haphazard fashion.

    • JBS says:

      I disagree that the bus ride makes consolidation nearly impossible. In Connecticut this is the name of the game with many regional districts serving the smaller towns. Region 1 has recently consolidated several elementary schools bc of declining enrollment. In Massachusetts our granddaughter has a very long ride to the regional elementary school.
      In Long Lake the taxpayers pay over $60,000. Per pupil. Each student could be sent to a private school for less than that..this year there was no soccer team, there are less than 5 children in some grade levels. How is this education. Recent research indicates that it is not just academics that are predictors of future success…but equally or moreso it is relationships and connections. It is impossible to justify this wanton spending because of a bus ride or to maintain “your school”.

  2. Richard L. Daly says:

    And in NY there is NYCity. 5 Counties of the State’s 62 total, making up 1 District. 1 million+ students and GROWING; with 55,000+ licensed pedagogues, in 1000+ buildings. There is no longer an elected or appointed school-board. The Mayor runs the system. $Supported by CITY income tax,City prop tax,City stock-transfer tax, City real-estate transfer tax. … Differen strokes … In Germany very rural upper-grade elementary and secondary kids have a weekday residential in-town option, returning home on weekends by bus/rail, to avail of consolidated services for 21st Century ed.

  3. Worth Gretter says:

    Peter, I usually like to read your thoughts, but you are way off base on this one. You ignore the fact that small communities want to keep their schools, which are often the center of community life. Merger of school districts almost alway means closure of one or more schools, not to mention really long bus rides for kids. And you say “school closure and consolidation has been a third-rail issue that politicians in Albany fear to touch,” but the NY State Education department in the past has given very generous incentives for mergers, and I imagine that is still continuing today. When I served on a local school board, I considered the incentives for merger in the aid formula as bribery – an attempt to get us to do something we knew we didn’t want to do.

  4. alex duschere says:

    When the younger generation learns through modern electronics that they live in a world with endless possibilities and opportunities, they seek to move to better themselves and that leads to an exodus of younger people removing their offspring/s from the sparsely remaining school attendance.

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