By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY Falling student populations pose as great a challenge for Sullivan County’s eight public school districts as finances indeed, they’re inextricably linked.
The Democrat recently contacted all those districts, plus Sullivan County BOCES, to determine where their enrollments and future plans stand.
The first two portions of this story covering Eldred, Fallsburg, Liberty, Livingston Manor, Monticello and Roscoe school districts ran in last week’s editions.
“Our enrollment continues to decline ... more quickly than I thought it would,” admits Sullivan West Superintendent Ken Hilton.
The loss hit five percent from last year to this, he said, from 1,291 down to 1,213. It’s a 25 percent drop since 2002-03 one of the biggest such losses in any Sullivan County school district over the past decade.
Hilton blames it on the recession and aging population rather than departing families, but SW is arguably the most active district in seeking new ways to compensate for the loss.
The impetus, says Hilton, comes from the board and community, which don’t want to see larger class sizes and less teachers.
“In the next three, four, five years, there will be huge pressures to increase class sizes,” he predicts. “Let’s do our darndest to fight it.”
Seven years ago, SW closed its Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley campuses, due in part to dwindling enrollment.
But in the next few years, the district aims to stem the outflow, contemplating hosting not just high schoolers from neighboring districts but foreign students, as well.
Hilton has followed the “regional” high school trend, where multiple districts send their 9th-12th graders to a central location, using their existing schools solely for K-8th graders.
“Even if they provide transportation for those kids, it’s a bargain,” he says.
Hilton wants SW to be on the hosting side; thus he’s also looking into attracting students from outside the country.
“With the unanimous endorsement of the board, I’ve begun the process of obtaining approval from the U.S. State Department to allow us to recruit international students who will enroll as tuition-paying students in our high school,” he wrote in a recent district bulletin.
“... These kids come from affluent families who are happy to pay tuition to the school district and room and board costs to district families, knowing that this experience will open up new opportunities for their children.”
He’s adamant that such changes are inevitable.
“Clearly, we’ve got to find some economies of scale in order to continue to offer programs,” Hilton concludes.
“We’re stable, but we’re not high,” observes Tri-Valley Superintendent Tom Palmer.
T-V’s enrollment has fallen by around 15 percent in the last decade, but the decline has slowed in recent years.
“We dropped roughly 45 students in the past four years,” Palmer relates.
Much of that loss was in the high school enrollment, while the elementary increased giving some hope to the future.
Palmer says the board remains committed to small class sizes (and the necessary staff) but isn’t interested in merging with any neighboring districts at this point.
It’s also one of the few Sullivan County districts not to have some involvement in BOCES’ Centralized Business Office.
“We don’t have a large business office here to start with,” Palmer explains. “... I think Tri-Valley is still solid.”
“The concept of a regional high school is getting some serious contemplation,” observes BOCES District Superintendent Larry Thomas.
“None of this is surprising when you look at what’s going on in other parts of the state,” he says. “... Just about every time we [superintendents] get together ... those topics come up.”
In addition to overseeing BOCES, Thomas is the NYS Education Department’s representative to Sullivan County. As such, he’s in a position to offer guidance but only when it’s requested.
Indeed, that’s BOCES’ modus operandi: work with the eight component districts to offer them what they want and need.
That extends beyond the tradition of offering classes too expensive or complicated for districts individually to handle. For example, BOCES is now sharing a food service manager with Tri-Valley.
The Centralized Business Office (CBO) concept is in its second year, offering districts the ability to transfer to BOCES their purchasing, accounts payable, payroll and/or accounting functions.
It’s saved participating schools over $100,000, according to Assistant Superintendent for Finance & Management Services Susan Schmidt.
Taking out one-time startup expenses, the CBO program saved Fallsburg, Liberty, Livingston Manor, Monticello and Sullivan West $205,000 in 2010-11 without laying off staff, added Schmidt, who said employees were instead cut through attrition and retirement.
Tri-Valley and Roscoe don’t participate in that offering, but Eldred has now signed on to what Schmidt already deems a success.
In fact, Thomas is looking at offering the program to local governments and nonprofit agencies, as well.
Nevertheless, he’s relatively certain that the county’s districts will have to consolidate further.
In anticipation, BOCES staff are investigating sharing human resources personnel, transportation directors, operations managers, even assistant superintendents.
But Thomas reiterates that these decisions have to be made by the districts first their leaders, staff, students and taxpayers.
“Folks need to talk through that,” he explains. “I feel the conversations need to take place, but those conversations take time.”