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Enrollment, buildings in decline at Sullivan West

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — November 9, 2007 — Sullivan West Superintendent Ken Hilton painted a grim picture Wednesday of the district’s facilities and enrollment during one of three public forums at the Lake Huntington high school.
Though he maintained an upbeat optimism throughout the presentation, Hilton remained realistic and honest, a fact not lost on board members and the audience of about 40.
“We all know there’s been massive mismanagement of this district under two administrations,” remarked board member Noel van Swol. “Dr. Hilton, you’re a breath of fresh air.”
The superintendent acknowledged that families had left the area or been turned off by the loss of two of the three community schools that were part of the original merger in 1999 – and that those who remain are suffering under an exhausting burden of ever-growing taxes.
Indeed, he indicated things are going to get worse before they get better.
“We are losing student population significantly,” he told the small crowd. “… And we’re looking at an accelerating decline.”
That point was illustrated by a Powerpoint presentation that showed the past 10 years’ worth of enrollment figures. In 1997, before Jeffersonville-Youngsville, Delaware Valley and Narrowsburg merged to form Sullivan West, the three districts’ total enrollment stood at 1,722. A decade later, that figure has dropped by 20 percent to 1,385.
In the past five years alone, Sullivan West has lost 14.4 percent of its student population, or 232 students. Based on those figures, Hilton predicted a similar 2-3 percent slide in each of the next five years.
The early dream to attract families with new school facilities has been dashed, he indicated.
“The only thing that’s going to bring in young families with children is jobs,” Hilton said.
The school’s four campuses and related facilities dominated the rest of the discussion, with Assistant Superintendent for Business Larry Lawrence admitting there were so many items of surplus equipment he didn’t even know where to start.
“Name an item, and we have it,” said Lawrence.
That, however, was one of the few bright spots, considering that many desks, chairs and other equipment can be sold at auction.
And money is needed if the district is to fix and maintain its buildings. While the high school’s well-known flooring, roofing and athletic field issues were detailed – including the beginnings of a plan to finish those incomplete fields – many audience members were surprised to hear that the elementary school in Jeffersonville also faces roof leaks, drainage repairs, mechanical/electrical problems and code compliance issues – some related to the fact that the district ran out of money while renovating the school five years ago.
Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley’s closed campuses are in pretty good shape, Lawrence explained, but since they’re not being used yet still have to be maintained, they continue to drain district resources – almost $400,000 annually.
Both he and Hilton stated that upwards of $450,000 had been saved by shuttering the two facilities, but the superintendent said administrators are willing to entertain reopening them if the community desires it.
“Would it be an efficient use of resources? No,” said Hilton. “…Yet this is a democratic school community. We can make those decisions if we want to.
“But would it cost us? Sure it would.”
Acknowledging that residents still wrestle with “the emotion that goes into a merger that didn’t work in a lot of ways,” he urged people to focus on the future – starting with resurrecting the board’s Facilities Committee, which collapsed earlier this year amidst charges and recriminations over both fears and hopes about reopening DV and Narrowsburg.
Hilton said people need to realize that the district has room for 4,000 students yet enrolls just 1,400. SW is also carrying more than $60 million in debt and is suing and being sued by several of the contractors involved in the high school’s construction. And while the five-year-old litigation may be complete by next year, the district may or may not win.
“I think the community has to come to grips with that reality,” he stated.
But he promised that decisions will not be made behind closed doors – a perception he admitted had dogged prior administrations.
“We can’t have that happen,” he said.
With the doors open, he added, “we can make sensible decisions.”
The next and final SW forum is on the district’s fiscal condition and future prognosis, scheduled for 7-9 p.m. on November 29 at the high school in Lake Huntington. The public is welcome and urged to attend.

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