EDITORIAL:Goodbye to (some) schools

TV NEWS has offered a string of reports recently of parents confronting school boards over plans to close local school buildings. Advocates of each school cite the educational benefits of small classes and the caring staff, they plead that the school has a function greater than its educational mission, that the school — their school — anchors the neighborhood and that closing it undermines the whole community.

Who could argue? They’re right on all counts except the one that motivates boards to shut some schools. The boards know that they have a higher obligation than maintaining specific community institutions. They must set the price for educating all the children in their district at a level a majority of taxpayers will accept.

Shedding the costs associated with older, less efficient buildings is one big way to cut a school budget quickly. The Hudson City School District, which has already closed one school, and the Ichabod Crane Central District, which seems poised to vacate two older buildings, have been able to address this painful process without obvious disruptions other than to the lives of teachers and others who lose their jobs. But like any “one-shot” budget measures, layoffs and the closing of schools raise an obvious question: What do you cut when closing more schools and eliminating more teachers means sending kids home without an education?

The hard times of this recession have punished taxpayers in ways that will ripple through our politics for a long time to come, but the changes afoot in education don’t all stem from a woozy economy. Numbers also play a part. Ichabod Crane is a good case in point. Like many districts, it has a study of enrollment trends, which offers a glimpse of how many kids will attend district schools in the future. The key finding of the study is that the number of students in the district, which has been dropping for the last few years, is likely to get even smaller. The district had about 2,300 students in 2004. It might have 1,800 or fewer students by the year 2019.

And Ichabod Crane is in better shape than other districts around the county. Chatham, a smaller district, has 106 seniors this year; it expects to have a kindergarten class of only 73.

All the 2010 U.S. Census data are not yet available, but we do know that while the population of the nation continues to grow, Columbia County has fewer people now than 10 years ago. That’s not unusual in the Northeast, and that demographic shift shows up vividly in the form of an idle building like the Greenport School in the Hudson district or at the Martin Glynn School in Valatie and the Martin Van Buren School in Kinderhook, which the Ichabod Crane district plans to lease to other parties.

Other derelict school buildings dot the landscape, like the vacant Roe Jan school in Copake, the old school on North Third Street in Hudson and the former Ockawamick School now owned by the county but hardly used. There are also successfully reused schools: the former Ghent schoolhouse, now the town hall, and 401 State Street, the headquarters of the county Board of Supervisors. Keep in mind, though, that all these schools were closed to make way for newer, more modern buildings, with more classrooms in an era when the school age population was growing and so was the tax base. These relics symbolize a time of progress and growth. The newly decommissioned schools joining them now attest to an era of contraction.

The other factor driving the need to close school buildings and cut teachers is the huge deficit faced by state government. The governor’s proposal to reduce school aid has accelerated a process that might otherwise have unfolded at a more leisurely and less noticeable pace. And maybe it makes sense not to prolong the painful process of closing classrooms and laying off educators.

But so far what’s missing from the discussion are proposals for how our downsized school districts can withstand future cuts that erode the quality of public education through no fault of educators. What happens to schools the next time markets blinded by greed melt down or when demographic shifts penalize us for living here? Drastic measures like closing schools, as economists say, wring inefficiencies out of the system. But they don’t mean our children have any less need for a good public education. And they don’t relieve us taxpayers of our obligation to ensure they get it.

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