Esslie-Frenia Law June 2023 Leaderboard

EDITORIAL: Where have students gone?

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THE STORIES WE HEAR readers talk about don’t always match what’s on the front page. Take last week’s issue, for instance, when reporter Jeanette Wolfberg prepared a chart showing a large decline in public school enrollment countywide.

The chart showed that while the percentage decline varied from one district to another, taken as a whole the six public school districts in the county saw a drop in enrollment of 29% between the school years 2000 and 2016. This presentation of annual state data didn’t try to explain why the numbers have dropped, though the topic comes up frequently at school board meetings. But if you’re a taxpayer in Columbia County it’s worth thinking about.

The numbers reveal that all the districts saw double-digit declines over that period, which indicates that public education in the county is caught up in a long-term trend rather than bad decisions made by clueless school boards. On the contrary, school administrators and board members are acutely aware of their shrinking student bodies. The question now is: What can we do about it?

Let’s start with recognizing just how old we are. This isn’t a blip. The Census Bureau says that 23% of us county residents–that’s nearly one of every four–are 65 or older. The figures for the 65+ populations of both the state and the nation are just under 16%. Not surprisingly, on the other end of the scale the county has a smaller percentage of those 18 or younger.

This particular set of school enrollment numbers may have caused a few double-takes, but the trend has been apparent for more than a decade. In a 2014 report on population in the Hudson Valley, the organization Hudson Valley Pattern for Progress predicted, “Columbia County population is projected to decline by 20.1% by 2040; nevertheless, the 80+ population will grow by 65%.”

Even when you know about trends, it’s hard to break old habits, especially when money’s involved. Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature have made some progress in capping municipal budget property taxes and badgering towns and counties to share and consolidate services, but that’s hardly a vision for how we’ll adjust to this process of getting grayer every year.

These numbers aren’t just about schools, either. Fewer school age children means fewer young families, which raises concerns about how long it will be before the local labor force is neither large enough nor adequately skilled to sustain our lifestyles. We’re gonna need help–a lot of it.

What does fewer families raising fewer students mean for the tax base? How will fewer young families affect the difficulty communities already face when they try to recruit volunteer firefighters or PTA members, not to mention nurses and doctors? Consider also the possible loss of local representation, as political districts are redrawn to reflect where people live.

Societies adjust to change, some more successfully than others. And it’s risky to draw conclusions from a few responses to one newspaper article. But what do we do at a time when rational priorities continue to be upended with little or no civil discourse about the longer term consequences?

You can imagine how far you’d get if you suggested diverting a few billion dollars from the money the president wants for a border wall and spending it instead on settling immigrant families in communities where school enrollments are dwindling. Would that help staunch the loss of students and replenish the labor force? The theory could be tested.

More likely we’ll be allowed to cluck over the trends and go on about our business, assured that taxes will rise until only the wealthy can afford to live here.

Or maybe climate change will intervene. Frequent heat waves and slow-moving, violent storms, which have already begun to multiply, might prompt an exodus from coastal cities bringing us more population than the county has ever had. That would solve our empty-classroom problem at least until the climate, as it continues to change, convinces us that life along the Canadian border is more livable than here, as hard as that is to believe.

Enrollment remains a constant puzzle that local and state governments must handle. We see that playing out right now at meetings of the Ichabod Crane Board of Education, which is discussing a capital improvement plan now expected to cost a total of $27 million.

The district would benefit from all the proposed upgrades and repairs. But the board will face a stiff challenge convincing its aging voters that it takes more space to educate ever fewer students.

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