ACS tackles challenge of declining enrollment

in

By Matthew J. Perry
The Andes Central School Board of Education addressed the hard reality of declining enrollment Thursday, and also listened to calls for tax relief from members of the school district. Yet the board also gave a demonstration of the school’s new website, and somehow managed to inject optimism and can-do spirit into what might have been a grim opening to the administration’s school year.
ACS has called in representatives of the Rural Schools Association (RSA) to aid in what acting superintendent John Bernhardt described as a “self analysis” of the challenges facing the school. The process will include assessments of the curriculum, with particular attention paid to the performance of fourth- and eighth-grade students in English Language Arts and math. But the study will also include the collection of county data with the intent of projecting enrollment over the next decade.
Larry Kiley, an RSA director who addressed the board, summarized the facts. “Declining enrollments are a fact of life in Andes and across Delaware County,” he said. “This is the number one problem rural school districts face.” He pointed out that over the past decade many schools have seen enrollment drop by one percent each year; Andes, for example, enrolled 200 students 10 years ago.
Declining enrollments drive up the cost per student, which, in turn, can easily translate into higher taxes in the school district as state aid declines. Board president John Hopkins noted that Andes’ predicament is unique, due to its large number of expensive second homes, which affect the state’s assessment of the district’s wealth, and need. “The state calls us rich, but as we all know, really we’re poor,” he said. “For the last five years we’ve run what the state would define as an austerity budget.”
Bernhardt pointed to a simple metric that helps to define the downward trend. ACS has 45 students in grades nine through 12, while the number of students enrolled in kindergarten through fourth grade, five grades as opposed to four, is only 37.
The self-analysis, according to Bernhardt, is not a merger study. “In a merger you need two people to dance,” he stated. “You don’t even want to suggest that it would have to be done.” Nonetheless, a future merger of districts is likely to be discussed as the analysis progresses. “It has to be on the table,” said Bernhardt. “All the markers have to be in place.”
Andes residents who attended the meeting expressed support for the school, which was referred to as “the heart of the community” several times during the evening. But one man asked when the cost per student would be too high for residents to bear. “I’m on a fixed income,” he said, “and my taxes went up $430 this year. My neighbor’s went up $1,000. You have to get off our backs. How long before I have to move somewhere else that’s cheaper?”
The board expressed awareness of the predicament, but had little to say that could mitigate the residents’ frustration. Hopkins noted that the state could likely bring more bad news as it tackles budget shortfalls. “The government can slash services, but they still have mandates for performance, he said, neatly describing the board’s position as somewhere between a rock and hard place.
In between these discussions the board was walked through the beginnings of andescentralschool.org, which will open the school’s workings up to the community in innovative ways. Each teacher will have a page, homework assignments and club events will be posted for the benefit of students and parents alike, and the content of many assignments can be downloaded. While the site is still in its infancy, teachers and administration are quickly mapping out its dimensions and generating excitement over possibilities. The Internet could become a means for virtual field trips and connection to the programs of other schools, as well as a chance for ACS students to participate in what Mr. Bernhardt described as “community based curriculum enhancement.”
The goal is to keep ACS alive through outreach and utilization of existing technology. “The answers you’re seeking are not out there,” said Larry Kiley of RSA. “They’re in here.”