Photo Courtesy: iStock Images, Flickr
By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- Student enrollment at public schools statewide has decreased by nearly 19,000 students since the 2008-09 academic year, and full-time faculty and professional staff have been reduced at a faster rate, a decline of more than 13,000 workers.
Enrollment was down 0.7 percent between 2008-09 and 2010-11, the most recent available data year -- a loss of 18,657 students. Some counties lost as much as nearly 7 percent of their student bodies over the three academic years, according to state Education Department data reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau.
"On a statewide basis, that's not a huge shift -- you're looking at about 2.7 million students statewide," said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, a policy group. "But in some districts, that could be pretty hard."
The areas hit hardest by enrollment declines are in western New York and the Southern Tier, while New York City and adjacent counties experienced growth. The enrollment trends are consistent with overall population shifts.
The number of full-time professional employees, including teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, school nurses, psychologists and other professional who devote more than half of their time to non-teaching duties, was down 4.6 percent statewide -- from 281,871 in 2009 to 268,856 in 2011.
Data show that some districts with growing, stable or only slightly declining enrollment are reducing staff at a more dramatic rate, trends that educational officials said have a two-fold explanation.
Districts with declining enrollment worked to realign staff with their student bodies. But schools have also cut staff over the past three years because of state-aid reductions and a property-tax cap this year that limited the growth in property taxes to about 3 percent, experts said.
"Generally speaking, schools had really upped their staff in the recent past," particularly in the early 2000s, said Tim Hoefer, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany. "They're right-sizing themselves."
Schools received a $805 million increase in state aid this year, but they dealt with either declining or flat state aid in the prior years.
"The cuts we've seen go far deeper" than personnel adjustments for enrollment, said Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, a statewide union. "We've seen a slashing of programs and staff. We've seen school closings and the elimination of extracurricular activities and important subjects like art and music."
Easton said the state's "across-the-board" cuts were not "thoughtfully built around drops in enrollment."
Staffing cuts have come as schools consider consolidating districts, sharing services or seeking legislative authority to establish regional high schools.
"Those things are not easy to do," said David Albert, a spokesman for the state School Boards Association. "The fact that there is such a renewed focus on consolidations and mergers speaks to the enrollment declines and ... the fiscal reality that school districts are facing."
A typical district spends three-quarters of its budget on personnel, said Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of Superintendents.
During difficult fiscal times, districts will first try to cut costs not associated with employees, he said.
District officials will ask: "Can we reroute our buses? Can we turn down our thermostats? Can we regionalize our services?" Lowry said.
"But as the need to make tough choices goes on, it becomes harder to spare the biggest part of your budget," he said.
Educational officials are most concerned about poor, rural districts that are more likely to suffer from declining enrollment and a deteriorating tax base.
South Seneca Central School District, in Seneca County, experienced a slight enrollment decline between 2008-09 and 2010-11 -- less than 1 percent of its roughly 850 students. But full-time staff was reduced by nearly 13 percent -- from 156 to 136 employees.
Superintendent Janie Nusser said she has felt like she had no choice but to cut personnel.
"All upstate districts are really being pinched," she said.
With creativity, the district has managed to maintain most program offerings, losing only the high-school level technology courses. They're involved in a consolidation study, though, with nearby Romulus Central Schools, a district of roughly 500 students.
"The students in my district deserve to have an education every bit as much as students who come from wealthy families," she said, "and I feel like we're on the verge of forgetting that."
Similarly, Horseheads Central School District in Chemung County lost 0.4 percent of its students over the three years -- from 4,342 to 4,326, but reduced staff by 11.2 percent -- 489 to 434.
"Student enrollment is just one of the many factors taken into account when developing the budget during these years," Superintendent Ralph Marino, Jr., said in an email. "The most significant factor was the decrease in state aid."
The Rochester City School District lost 2 percent of its students in that time period -- from 34,004 to 33,260, but cut 10 percent of its staff -- from 4,509 to 4,060.
The district closed one school last year, and more school closings may be planned in the future, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said.
Rochester schools have scaled back on art, music and sports programs in recent years, as well, he said.
"When you do that, then the school becomes less attractive -- not just for families but for the students themselves," contributing to enrollment decline, he said.
And even districts experiencing growth are cutting personnel.
Downstate, Tuckahoe Union Free School District in Westchester County saw a 5.7 percent increase in enrollment -- from 1,019 to 1,077 students, but reduced staff by 5.6 percent -- from 142 to 134.
Enrollment changes do not always translate into staff reduction, school officials said.
Carl Albano, principal of Tuckahoe Middle School, said in an email that when state funds dwindled, the district responded by reducing teachers and therefore increasing class sizes - from about 16-19 students to 22-25. The district also made cuts in foreign language instruction.
"Although we reduced staff... we have continued to maintain high-quality education for all of our students," Albano said. "However, going forward I believe it will be much more difficult for us to reduce personnel without negatively impacting our students. We simply do not have many options left."
Growth or decline in enrollment, for example, doesn't always occur in every grade or at every school in a district. A district might gain 50 new kindergarten students, but if the students are distributed among 10 different classrooms, a district might not add a new teacher.
Alternatively, at a high school, there might be only five students who choose to take physics. Lowry said it might be hard to justify keeping a teacher for five students, but without that teacher, the school can't offer physics, compromising students' education.
As circumstances vary, not all districts responded to enrollment change in the same way, particularly with regard to staffing.
Susquehanna Valley Central School District in Broome County lost 9.3 percent of its enrollment -- 1,858 to 1,686 students, but maintained its staff. The district employed 240 people on a full-time basis in 2008-09 and 237 in 2010-11. In the same county, Harpursville Central School District lost 7.7 percent of its student body -- from 974 to 899 students, but has also maintained its staff -- 131 in 2009 and 133 in 2011, state records showed.
Jim Hull, spokesman for Susquehanna Valley schools, said in an email that the district's staff cuts, which affected teachers, administrators and other staff, were administered through a combination of attrition and layoffs.
"In making staffing decisions, first and foremost we attempt to preserve programs for our students," he said.
Officials from Harpursville did not return requests for comment.
The East Rochester School District in Monroe County saw a 1.8 percent enrollment increase -- from 1,174 to 1,195 students, but increased staff by 9.8 percent -- from 153 to 168.
The growth in enrollment and staffing, Superintendent Ray Giamartino, Jr., said in an email, was a result of a district initiative to bring students who were receiving special-education services elsewhere back to the district.
Staff grew at a higher rate than student enrollment because some special-education students required more attention from staff members.
However, Giamartino said the district was still able to save money by educating those students "in-house" rather than contracting outside groups.
"Hiring those needed teachers and support staff in-house also allows for the utilization of those experts with other students in need of similar services," such as occupational therapy, he said.
In Monroe County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 decreased by 2.8 percent, a loss of about 3,220 students, and staffing declined by 4.4 percent, a drop of about 630 workers.
In Tompkins County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 decreased by 4.8 percent, a loss of about 580 students, and staffing declined by 1.2 percent, a drop of about 20 workers.
In Dutchess County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 decreased by 2.9 percent, a loss of about 1,370 students, and staffing declined by 3.4 percent, a drop of about 170 workers.
In Westchester County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 increased by 0.7 percent, a gain of about 1,000 students, and staffing declined by 6.0 percent, a drop of about 1,110 workers.
In Broome County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 decreased by 4.6 percent, a loss of about 1,400 students, and staffing declined by 3.1 percent, a drop of about 125 workers.
In Chemung County, total enrollment between 2008-09 and 2010-11 decreased by 0.6 percent, a loss of about 80 students, and staffing declined by 8.6 percent, a drop of about 130 workers.
Here is a database that contains enrollment numbers for students and teachers in all New York schools from 2009 through 2011.