I’m the chairman of the board of a local nonprofit that serves area youth. A couple of years ago, we made a difficult but necessary decision to change our business and staffing model, a proactive measure in response to the population trends facing the region. We knew that just a few years down the road our old way of doing things wouldn’t be economically sustainable as there would be fewer potential clients to serve.
Seriously declining enrollments in area schools (specifically numbers from the 2014-2015 school year) were the catalyst for our strategy. Every county in which we operate saw double digit percentage drops in pupils, undoubtedly an outcome of an aging local population, young people moving out-of-state for what are greener pastures economically, and parents in general having fewer children.
Using my district as an example of what faces all of us in upstate New York, over that school year our sixth through twelfth grades saw a peak enrollment of 128 and a low of 100, averaging out at 115 students per grade. The average class size for grades kindergarten through fifth in the 2014-2015 school year was 90 students – that’s a sudden drop of 25 students per class or 22%. That statistic is scary in itself, but it’s nothing compared to the concern elicited by the enrollment numbers for that year’s kindergarten class: 79 students.
When looking at other districts in eastern Niagara County we found these disturbing declines in average class size for sixth through twelfth versus kindergarten through fifth in the 2014-2015 school year: Barker 23%, Wilson 21%, and Newfane 12%. The populations we serve in neighboring counties saw similar declines.
These negative trends were reinforced in a report issued by the Empire Center this past September. They found that across the state public school enrollments had plummeted to levels not seen for 29 years. A telling map that came with their press release showed K-12 enrollment fell by 10 to 15% for Genesee County schools, 15 to 20% for Wyoming County districts, and 20 to 25% for Orleans County schools for the 10 academic years ending 2017-2018.
We are, without a doubt, heading into an educational crisis.
The thing is, we already experienced one recently -- and, sadly, our voters and school taxpayers hardly learned from it -- as an outcome of the revenue losses of the Great Recession when sports and arts were temporarily cut, and superintendents, resources, and even students were shared across districts. Once the national economy found its mojo again and school boards and administrators had grown tired of having their heads served up on platters to the angry parents of students, those services were, for the most part, returned to the way they were.
The crisis that we will be feeling over the next 5 to 15 years will far rival what we experienced during the Recession.
As these kids from the smaller cohort groups age into high school and the classes behind them remain dwarfed in numbers, untold numbers of teachers will lose their jobs, portions of facilities will be made obsolete, sports teams will have unsustainable rosters, and the way that we’ve been always been doing things will change dramatically. Students, parents, and whole communities will have to change their expectations, even their identities. Districts will have to share services and/or consolidate. They will have to do as my nonprofit board and make wholesale changes in response to the new norm facing Western New York’s socioeconomic conditions. It will be a major culture change and, for many, an uncomfortable one.
The writing is on the wall, so, in the coming years, don't scratch your head or get too fired up when school boards and school officials have to make different, interesting, and difficult decisions concerning budgets, services, extracurricular activities, and consolidations.
As a matter of fact, right now is the time when you as a parent, taxpayer, and concerned citizen should be preparing for that by asking yourself a question that school boards have already asking themselves: What will the future hold?
From the 05 November 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News