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Space Aplenty At Shrinking Schools

Student numbers over eight years have decreased more than 10% in the area.

Social distancing at a majority of Chautauqua County’s public schools appears as though it will not be a problem. Judging by the most recent U.S. Census figures over the last decade that resulted in a 5.4% loss of 7,248 residents to 127,657, a majority of these overbuilt educational facilities look a lot like safe havens.

“We are in the process of spacing students a minimum of 3 feet apart in the elementary school,” said Westfield Academy & Central Schools Superintendent Michael Cipolla at a recent board meeting. That mandate has been echoed by other leaders as well as a return to in-person classes has been a welcome return for nearly everyone this year.

In some area districts, however, spacing could be a challenge. Consider the newly formed Dunkirk Middle and High School on Sixth Street that is potentially housing around 750 to 800 students. Even Jamestown, the county’s largest district, may face issues just in terms of sheer population.

But overall, declining enrollments have been a fact of life for all area districts for nearly three decades. There are a couple of factors involved. First, and foremost, is the population loss. Every time one resident moves away, there’s a good chance relatives may follow.

Just as important is the fact families are smaller today than they were even 20 years ago. Fewer births means less students need to be educated.

How are the local numbers? New York state Education records through each district’s Report Cards go through the early portions of the COVID-19 pandemic of the 2019-20 school year.

But there’s clear evidence this area has fewer students in 20 total districts. Compared to state statistics from 2012-13, our region has seen enrollment declines of a little more than 10%. At that time, 21,669 students were in classes. During the 2019-20 school year, there’s 19,541 — a decrease of 2,128.

Obviously, the smaller districts have been hit the hardest. But in the overall picture, no districts saw gains:

¯ Bemus Point, 726 in ’12-13; 621 in ’19-20; a loss of 96 or 13.2%.

¯ Brocton, 527; 509; down 18 or 0.3%.

¯ Cassadaga Valley, 1,018; 799; down 219 or 21.5%

¯ Chautauqua Lake, 738; 706; down 32 or 4.3%.

¯ Clymer, 443; 414; down 29 or 6.5%.

¯ Dunkirk, 1,981; 1,957; down 24 or 1.2%.

¯ Falconer, 1,218; 1,119; down 99 or 8.1%.

¯ Forestville, 529; 433; down 96 or 18.1%.

¯ Fredonia, 1,502; 1,418; down 84 or 5.6%.

¯ Frewsburg, 810; 777; down 33 or 4.1%

¯ Gowanda, 1,260; 1,063; down 197 or 15.6%.

¯ Jamestown, 4,985; 4,479; down 506 or 10.2%.

¯ Panama, 535; 436; down 99 or 18.5%.

¯ Pine Valley, 604; 485; down 119 or 19.7%.

¯ Randolph, 888; 846; down 42 or 5.2%.

¯ Ripley, 288; 123; down 155 or 53.8%.

¯ Sherman, 420; 402; down 18 or 4.2%.

¯ Silver Creek, 1,064; 1,022; down 42 or 3.9%.

¯ Southwestern, 1,471; 1,300; down 171 or 11.6%.

¯ Westfield, 722; 632; down 90 or 12.4%.

Area residents, however, are increasingly numb to the realities of shrinking schools. Voters show very little pushback when annual budget plans increase spending and taxes or major renovations call for expansions that, in one instance in Forestville, built an auditorium that the former 600-resident village could fill.

Almost as significant are the salaries and benefits tied to these staffs. In payroll alone, according to seethroughny.net, there are 381 fewer educational employees at these facilities from 2013 to 2020 when there were a total of 4,611. Salary costs, however, jumped from $189,472,924 to $207,646,470 — a 9.6% increase over those years.

Costs of education, no matter how few students are attending schools, are tough to contain. Consolidations between districts are a potential, but unpopular, answer. We already do this with our athletic teams, but deciding on leaving brick and mortar buildings are much tougher decisions.

In the end, the emotions normally get the best of us. We trudge on with what we have because that is our comfort zone.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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