Editor’s Note: Want to see the entire table of district-by-district decline of all 55 schools we analyzed? Scroll to the bottom of this story.
What should state or local officials do about cratering enrollment numbers at school districts across the Finger Lakes?
In 2019, we analyzed enrollment data from the state Department of Education to see how school districts were doing amid overall population decline. Less than three years later, the data paints an even bleaker picture.
Between 2019 and 2022 school districts saw enrollment declines of up to 9.1%. Our analysis included all public schools in Cayuga, Ontario, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne, and Yates counties.
Superintendents are worried. Not only about their districts, but about the impact continued enrollment decline will have on students. We spoke with Auburn Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo in early-December. Shortly before Christmas break, FingerLakes1.com caught up with Canandaigua Superintendent Jamie Farr.
Both of those districts are among the largest in the region. And both have suffered massive enrollment losses. For context, Auburn had lost 28.4% of its enrollment between 1979 and 2019. That translated to 1,774 fewer students. Then the pandemic happened accelerating that decline. Between 2019 and 2022 the district lost 259 enrolled students. It represented a 5.9% decline.
Pirozzolo said it was only a matter of time before county districts would be necessary. Why? While larger districts like Auburn saw significant enrollment decline – they still had enough students to justify an entire district. Smaller school districts, who had fewer students to work with in the first place, will be among the first to get ‘merged’ if the state mandates such a thing.
For example, Hammondsport saw a decline of 61.2% or 697 students between 1979 and 2019. Then, between 2019 and 2022 declined another 7.3% or 41 students. Watkins Glen in Schuyler County lost 863 students between 1979 and 2019 or 44.4% of its enrollment. The period between 2019 and 2022 saw another 141 students or 10.8% of enrollment disappear.
These are not isolated examples, either. Taking the entire analyzed period into account Dundee, Penn Yan, Lyons, Clyde-Savannah, North Rose-Wolcott, Sodus, Marion, Dryden, Addison, Campbell-Savona, Bradford, Hornell, Avoca, Jasper-Troupsburg, Hammondsport, Romulus, South Seneca, Odessa-Montour, Watkins Glen, Manchester-Shortsville, Gorham-Middlesex, East Bloomfield, Honeoye, Moravia, Union Springs, Southern Cayuga, and Port Byron all saw enrollment declines of more than 40% between 1979 and 2022.
In fact, out of 55 districts analyzed in our collection effort – only 9 saw enrollment declines under 30%. Even the few bright spots, like the Victor Central School District, who has seen an overall increase in student enrollment between 1979 and 2022 – suffered a 2.7% loss or 112 fewer students between 2019 and 2022.
Canandaigua Superintendent Jamie Farr says it’s something his team thinks about every day. While many think about it as a budget problem – whether it be related to state aid or tax dollars yielded through the community – he says the year-to-year operational issues pose a challenge.
“This is my sixth year in Canandaigua. And it was declining prior to my arrival, and certainly, I’ve seen it in my time here,” he told FingerLakes1.com. “When I first started here, our middle school had class sizes around 280 per class, which is down a bit from 10 years prior. We kept telling the leadership in the middle school, ‘You are going to see a pretty significant dip’, and I don’t think they believed it until it happened.”
Farr said class sizes are now around 220.
“Interestingly enough, at the same time, if you look at our [high school] numbers, every class is about 270 students – give or take two,” he continued. “It’s weird, they’re all the same for all four classes, but in less than four years they’re all going to be between 220 and 230. So when you extrapolate that out, that’s about 200 fewer students. It’s almost like having an entire grade worth of kids no longer there. It will be a massive decline.”
Farr says it comes down to attracting families. “I think what I’d like to see happen, or at least what I’d like to see happen is more housing development to attract families,” he said. “So far, over the last five years or so it’s been a lot of apartments – that doesn’t really attract families. So I’d like to see more single family developments popping up. There are a couple. But it’ll take years for those to be realized.”
Mergers aren’t a magic, though. While Pirozzolo and Farr shared the view that some, perhaps all districts, would eventually have to merge in counties across the region – it would take more than a reorganizational effort to come out of it better.
Farr recalled a previous effort, with a central question that will be essential to executing on mergers. Whether they were district-by-district or countywide. “There was a study, probably about 15 years ago now, around a regional merger project that looked at our geography and how merging different schools together would have impacted students and families,” he said. “When they saw the final report it was a big letdown. It didn’t strengthen us. It didn’t make us a stronger regional academically. It just shut down schools and didn’t capitalize on the most important question, which is ‘How do we emerge from it better?'”
Pirozzolo pointed to rapid growth in homeschooling as a challenge for public schools. He thought there would be more private companies entering the homeschooling space in the coming years. Parents emerged from the pandemic wanting something more for their children. Shutting down schools because of population decline erases an opportunity for discussion about improving public education.
“Shutting down buildings and merging districts only goes so far if you don’t address the causes of these declines,” Farr concluded. Cost of living, housing and job opportunities, and quality of education are just a few of the ‘big issues’ at play with schools and communities losing significantly.