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First School Day SJ

First-graders hang their bags outside their classroom Sept. 3 on the first day of school at Jackson Heights Elementary School in Glens Falls. School districts in lhe region that face decreasing enrollment need to be creative and disciplined when balancing spending against offering a well-rounded education.

Steve Jacobs—sjacobs@poststar.com

The pattern that leaps out of the school district enrollment figures reported Sunday by Michael Goot is the loss of school-age children in the region over the past 15 years.

In Warren, Washington and Hamilton counties, every school district — 22 in all — lost students from 1998 to 2012. More than half of those districts lost more than 25 percent of their students.

This is a crisis. Some districts, like Indian Lake, with a 46 percent enrollment decline, and Long Lake, with a 43 percent decline, are rushing toward extinction.

Others, like Bolton, with a 32 percent decline, and Salem, with a 39 percent decline, aren’t far behind.

The most-threatened districts are those that started small, before enrollment declines. But larger districts like Glens Falls, which is down 27 percent, are struggling, too.

Various forces are at work — economic and demographic. Jobs are scarce in rural northern New York, and young people are moving to urban areas. People who move to the region, or move back to it, are often older, without school-age children.

Also, people are waiting until later in life to have children, and having fewer of them overall. This region has never benefited, as some regions have, from the rejuvenating effects an influx of immigrants can bring.

The situation gets worse when you consider the effect of enrollment decline on property taxes.

Some districts have cut staff proportionate to the loss of students, as shown by a second chart in Goot’s story.

In Warrensburg, enrollment fell by 29 percent and school staff was cut by 25 percent. In Argyle, enrollment fell 28 percent and staff was cut by 25 percent.

But in other districts, officials did not show such fiscal discipline. In Glens Falls, staff cuts amounted to only 6 percent over the 15 years, while enrollment was falling 27 percent. In Queensbury, where enrollment fell 6 percent, staff grew by 16 percent.

Districts that keep staff levels up when enrollment falls are increasing the per-student cost of education and the burden on taxpayers. High property taxes can, in turn, discourage people from moving to a community or encourage them to move out. Those who are left must then carry even more of the burden.

It’s tricky to find the point at which school spending is high enough to make the school appealing to parents but not so high it pushes tax bills beyond homeowners’ endurance.

Running a successful school district in northern New York is a tremendous challenge, requiring creativity and energy. Preserving the status quo isn’t good enough when your raw material — school-age children — is in decline.

A couple of districts in our area are trying creative strategies. In Bolton, school officials have decided to almost eliminate the $20,000-a-year tuition for out-of-district families in an effort to attract new students. If other schools followed suit, the low cost of switching districts would increase competition among them, which could be a powerful force for improvement.

In Newcomb — one of the smallest districts in the state — enrollment has risen from 65 K-12 students in 1998 to 102 in 2012. Newcomb has aggressively pursued ways to make its school stand out, by recruiting international students — the school had 18 last year — and pursuing partnerships with regional colleges to offer students the chance to earn college credits.

Particularly for small Adirondack schools like Newcomb, marketing their unique wilderness setting is a promising way to reach out to the wider world.

But in larger districts in more ordinary settings, like Glens Falls, recruiting foreign students for one-year stints is not going to solve the enrollment crisis.

Districts must show the ambition to offer an excellent education and the discipline to restrain spending.

Last year, it looked as if Glens Falls was going to have to slash numerous programs, such as middle school band, to keep its budget under the tax cap. But the school board and Superintendent Paul Jenkins changed course, and cut the size of the teaching staff, instead. It turned out class sizes had gotten so small that, even after laying off several teachers, the school was able to keep the number of students per class at a reasonable level.

All the districts where enrollment has fallen farther and faster than staff size should look at shrinking payroll before cutting programs. That group also includes Queensbury, Lake George, Fort Ann, Granville, Greenwich, Hartford, Hudson Falls, Whitehall, Ballston Spa, Corinth, South Glens Falls and Ticonderoga.

Enrollments may go back up, but probably not anytime soon. State aid may improve, too, but we wouldn’t count on it. To keep local schools alive, district leaders will have to be both creative and disciplined while they hold on and hope for better times.

Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Terry Coomes, Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representative Mike Sundberg.

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