2018-01-17 / Front Page

Low enrollments key topic for school superintendents

Future viability of area districts prompted meeting
By Eddie Donoghue

Three superintendents representing four school districts met recently to develop a proactive approach for dealing with issues facing schools in the area, particularly those problems caused by low enrollments.

The news was first made public by Superintendent Tom O’Brien at the Roxbury Board of Education meeting which took place on Wednesday, Jan. 10. O’Brien met with Gilboa- Conesville Central School Superintendent, Ruth Reeve Furt and Dr. Robert Chakar, Superintendent of both Margaretville and Andes Central Schools, so the three could discuss problems and solutions.

Teacher recruiting issues

The impetus for the meeting was a shared concern for the viability of their schools given the trends they see. The two biggest difficulties these schools and other local schools face are decreasing enrollment and the ability to attract teachers.

“With ongoing declining enrollment, we’re facing a daunting future,” O’Brien said. He backed this up by highlighting the numbers, saying, “We’re down 100 students from the time I first got here in 2002.”

He also mentioned Roxbury’s lack of a chemistry teacher, and how an online posting for the position saw zero hits in more than two weeks.

Reeve feels similarly, and although Gilboa-Conesville had an increase in enrollment this year, their numbers have been decreasing overall in recent years. “I’ve lived here all my life, I love it, but it has definitely changed in terms of who lives here. It’s a bedroom community,” she said. She also brought up factors such as smaller family sizes and the high percentage of retired residents. “We need to start exploring things and helping each other as much as we can,” she said.

Reeve also echoed O’Brien’s concerns regarding teachers, saying, “There’s a shortage of teachers in New York State and it’s really impacting us in these rural communities.” Chakar, on this note, brought up the importance of helping prospective teachers find reasonable housing when they decide to move here. All three talked about the declining numbers of youth in the area in general, with Reeve saying, “One of the things we do really well is educate kids. But then a lot of them choose not to come back.”

Taking action

The next step in their approach to address these issues is to choose two members from each of the four school boards to get together to meet and discuss the situations they are facing. Chakar considered himself optimistic about the plan, saying, “We’re hoping for a broader perspective, not just from the lens of a superintendent but from multiple members of different school districts so we can find out what they hear from their communities, what they celebrate, what concerns them and see what similarities and differences there are.” He gave the analogy of being a good neighbor, saying, “How can I be helpful if I don’t know how my neighbors are doing? I think it’s good in that sense. How can we help our neighbors?”

Chakar spoke to the News of similar efforts and discussions with O’Brien that took place around seven years ago—over related concerns. The situation has not improved, however, with O’Brien telling the News, “The district is standing in the middle of a significant intersection regarding its future. The challenge will be faced only by the degree that the organization internally, and the community externally, wants to go forward.”

O’Brien reiterated that the problems facing these schools, while daunting, present an opportunity, even a necessity, to come up with new ideas. If such innovative solutions can be found, there is the possibility of presenting them to a legislator, in which case, the schools might get implementation assistance.

One of the likeliest solutions to be implemented is that of sharing resources; whether they be teachers, transportation, or something already happening on a small scale. Many of the rules that concern this kind of sharing were written in the 1950s, so ultimately, going to a legislator might help cut some of the antiquated bureaucratic red tape.

Combo teams

The superintendents pointed to the example of sports in the area as a model. “Ten years ago, combining athletics wasn’t as much talked about, but over the last few years, because of declining numbers and interest, the only way the sport runs is when you lock arms and combine these two schools and say we’re going to have a team,” said Chakar.

The three superintendents’ expectations are, for now, modest, emphasizing that this is the beginning of the process and they are not sure of what, if anything, will come from it. “Our schools are similar, and I hope by working together we can utilize our strength,” said Reeve, “we have to start talking about it now.”

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