Adirondack Journal — Adirondack Schools

September marked the return to school for students across New York State and the Adirondacks. For many the 2010-2011 school year opened with stark differences as compared to previous years. Districts throughout the state face huge budget cuts and have to grapple with ways to serve student needs with substantially fewer dollars.

The New York State budget allocated $1.4 billion less to schools this year. Near the end of August the state received additional federal funding, including "The Race to the Top" education grant for nearly $700 million and another $608 million aimed at either hiring or re-hiring teachers. However, the money came too late for many schools to use during the current school year. (North Country Public Radio)

As a way to cut spending, the Tupper Lake, New York school district began the 2010-2011 school year with a quarter of its teaching staff either laid off or opting for early retirement. Students are currently offered fewer elective courses and have significantly larger class sizes. The 7th and 8th grades now have one teacher for each of the core subjects; last year there were two teachers covering each subject for these students. This has created added challenges when coordinating the schedules of about 150 pupils. (Adirondack Daily Enterprise)

Other schools are fairing a little better in a troubling economy. Many school districts in the central region of the Adirondack Park are unique, with extremely small class sizes and relatively large budgets. These schools receive most of their operation funding from property taxes, rather than depending on state funds.

In 2007, the Albany Times Union reported about Long Lake Central School, located in the hamlet of Long Lake N.Y., a little over twenty miles south of Tupper Lake. At that time, the school had sixty-seven students enrolled in K-12. In the 2004-2005 school year it spent $50,000 on average to educate a single student. While seemingly high, the figure includes operating costs. No matter the size of a school, a certain number of teachers and support staff are needed, and non-instructional costs such as facility maintenance and buses need to be sustained.

Schools such as Long Lake are fortunate as they are located in an area where the state owns huge tracks of land and there are a number of expensive seasonal homes. (Times Union, September 27, 2007) The Long Lake school district, like others in the center of the Adirondack Park, tends to be wealthier than the state average. There is a much higher proportion of state and seasonal property and only a small year round school-age population. (The Adirondack Atlas)

In 1999, there were fifteen schools with fewer than 300 students enrolled, most centrally located in the park. (Adirondack Atlas) In 2007 a typical Adirondack school had a 10:1 student/teacher ratio. In 2009, there were sixty-one schools operating in the Adirondacks, twenty-eight of those were located entirely within the Park. (Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project)

While funding may not be the largest concern for these schools, they do face the reality of ever shrinking enrollment. It is estimated that school size has declined by 31% since 1970 when the average student teacher ratio was 20:1. (Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project) 54 out of 103 Adirondack communities have experienced a decline in population between 2000-2006.

With few jobs to attract young families, the population of the Adirondacks is aging at three times the national or state average and will soon rival Florida's west coast region. (Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project)

Some schools, such as Newcomb Central School in Newcomb, N.Y., have worked to combat low student numbers by attracting international students, adding to class sizes and the diversity of the student population.

These shrinking numbers have forced many towns to consider the future of their schools. Will consolidation or closure be in their future? Are there ways to attract new families and students? It is too late for some schools; Raquette Lake, N.Y. had to close its elementary school and send students to a neighboring town. Amidst these considerations is also the question of what it means for the future of a community once a school that is a public resource and source of pride is no longer there?

Photo: Long Lake Central School, 1944