Call it a trickle-down effect. When U.S. Census population figures decrease as they have for the past three decades in Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, ultimately fewer students are being served by area schools.
David O'Rourke, Erie-2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services superintendent, is well aware of those numbers. During a presentation this week to the Rotary Club of Dunkirk, O'Rourke noted that in the last five years, enrollment numbers have decreased by 7 percent for the 27 school districts his BOCES represents.
In 2008-09, O'Rourke said the student population of the districts, which begin in the Holland, Iroquois and Orchard Park and work west through Chautauqua County and the Pennsylvania border, was 44,802. This school year, that number had decreased by 3,200 students.
More alarming than the enrollment decrease is what the superintendent calls the "increasing gaps in academic opportunity."
Most of those gaps, according to O'Rourke, come from a flawed funding system based out of Albany. "We provide an excellent quality of education in New York state, but the gap between 'have communities' and 'have-not communities' has become wider," he said.
For the record, our county school districts are not included in the "haves." Those districts, based on high wealth and property values, come from the metropolitan New York City suburbs. Even districts such as affluent Williamsville and Clarence in the Buffalo region are no match for the glitzy, high-rent districts of Long Island.
Add in an annual 2 percent state tax cap - as well growing salaries, benefits and pension plans at all schools - and you have a formula for fiscal headaches.
Those cash problems have forced districts to share more resources and to think about some sort of reorganization, whether it be in a regional high school or the joining of two districts. "Although there may be some savings in reorganization, the number one reason to consider reorganizing schools is to sustain and improve academic opportunities for children," O'Rourke said.
But change does not come easy. Residents in small schools such as Ripley, who pay the highest tax rates to keep the county's tiniest district open, grapple with the loss of an identity, questions over who will ultimately run the new school board and if their district may be dominated by its new, larger partner.
Those pride issues, however, are going to have to take a back seat as aid continues to dwindle and the courses and programs offered to students decrease.
"There are districts that are absolutely down to the bare minimum and really facing, because of revenue pressures, the possibility of a new concept ... that's academic insolvency where the school district is unable to even finance the basic programs for the children."
Some area schools are not far from this "insolvency," which adds to the urgency of reorganization plans for districts with less than 1,000 students.
"It has definitely been on the front burner in our region," O'Rourke said. "It may not be as fast as some might like it, but it certainly has been happening."
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