As Enrollment Numbers Decline, County Schools Resist Merging

On the field, the student-athletes who comprise the Clymer-Sherman-Panama Wolfpack come together to create a formidable team. Together, the team has a fighting chance to play for the Section 6 Class D championship this year. Separately, with the exception of a four-year stretch in which Jehuu Caulcrick suited up for Clymer, the teams struggled to reach such heights or to create such expectations.

Why should such team-building success be limited to athletics? Who is to say the best chemistry students from the three school districts couldn’t be even better if they were pushing themselves in the classroom every day? How much better a classroom discussion could a social studies teacher lead if the best minds in the Clymer, Sherman and Panama classrooms were taking part in deep discussions of world affairs?

Declining enrollments made the merger of the three schools’ football teams a necessity. Separately, the schools would be unable to field a team. The merger of the three football teams came about from necessity.

Consider, then, a recent report from the Empire Center for New York Policy that shows public school enrollment statewide for the 2018-19 school year is likely to regress back to 1989-90 levels. The center’s analysis, which includes charter schools and pre-kindergarten programs, shows 2017-18 enrollment was 2,608,473, only slightly more than the 1991-92 count of 2,584,967. U.S. Census data projects continued declines in New York’s statewide population of school-age children, including for the 2018-19 school year. The losses are felt particularly acutely in rural school districts.

Chautauqua County has been largely resistant to school mergers — including the recent defeat of a merger involving two of the Wolfpack’s three member schools earlier this year. If New York state isn’t going to mandate mergers as enrollments decrease — and history suggests it won’t — then the state Legislature must give smaller school districts the ability to use technology to broaden their reach through distance learning and finally approve regional high schools. We know we’re preaching to the choir as far as state Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, and state Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, are concerned. They regularly propose such legislation in their respective chambers. Ways to help smaller school districts broaden their class offerings should be part of this year’s gubernatorial election, given that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s idea of improving education is to simply throw more money at the problem even as he is hammered by school districts for not throwing enough money at their problems.

It is time for constructive solutions to the rural enrollment dilemma happening in New York state. It is one problem money can’t solve.