Student numbers slip


Mattituck High School students bound for classes back in 2005. North Fork school administrators anticipate a drop in enrollment, but don’t necessarily see it as a trend.

There will be fewer kids bumping backpacks in some school hallways this fall.

Some Southold school districts are encountering slight declines in anticipated enrollment for the 2010-11 year, but experienced educators are hesitant to call it a trend and most attribute the drop to economic conditions that have discouraged people from moving out east.

“We’ve been like a yo-yo,” Mattituck-Cutchogue Superintendent James McKenna said. Two years ago, he had 64 students register for kindergarten classes and that class, now entering second grade, is up to 72 students. Last September, 90 children entered kindergarten, but the district expects only 64 next month. There’s been a similar drop in the district’s universal pre-kindergarten program, down to 30 this year. In June Mattituck graduated a class of about 125.

In years past, Mr. McKenna routinely projected a 25 percent increase in enrollment from the time students start kindergarten to the time their class enters seventh grade. But that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

“I believe it’s housing,” the superintendent said. He believes parents aren’t moving to the North Fork in the numbers they once did because they can’t afford to buy homes here and pay the kind of taxes charged in most districts.

Mattituck has worked with the North Fork United Schools organization to search for shared services opportunities that would help contain costs.

Is that a move toward eventual consolidation? Mr. McKenna is skeptical.

“I still claim that’s an issue only time’s going to tell,” he said.

He is looking to cut expenses as teachers retire and are either replaced by part-timers or, if there are fewer students to educate, not replaced at all.

“Consolidation is always out there, but it would take really plummeting numbers” to see a real push in that direction, Mr. McKenna said.

Oysterponds Elementary School is also anticipating a decline, with 85 students expected in kindergarten through grade six in September, according to Superintendent Stuart Rachlin. That’s about 15 students fewer than attended Oysterponds in the 2009-10 school year.

Several people from East Marion, where there are more renters than in Orient, are relocating because their rents are too high, Dr. Rachlin said.

“They assured me that it’s nothing to do with the school district,” he said. They just can’t afford to stay and have to find less expensive housing, he said. Two renters lost their housing when their landlords were foreclosed on, he said.

“There is a ripple effect,” he said.

Despite suggestions from former board member Carl Demarest that Oysterponds consolidate with Greenport — Mr. Demarest had suggested using the Oysterponds building for a special education program to serve North Fork students — there is little appetite for a consolidation in the district.

Neither Southold nor Greenport is expecting dramatic changes in enrollment this fall.

Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said 56 students were enrolled in kindergarten at this time last summer and that class grew to 63. He’s seeing similar numbers this summer. The district graduated 96 students in June.

“Trends are very hard to predict,” Mr. Gamberg said. While he can’t project years out in this economy, he said Southold’s numbers have been consistent in recent years.

Several years ago, his predecessor, Dr. Chris Gallagher, projected steady growth in the district, but that didn’t materialize as the economy tightened.

“The cost of housing is considerably higher,” Mr. Gamberg said.

Like Mr. McKenna, he has been working with North Fork United Schools to explore sharing services. “In general, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

Greenport Superintendent Michael Comanda said he’s seeing only a slight enrollment decline. The district graduated 49 students in June and he’s anticipating about 39 kindergartners in September. That’s in line with recent years, he said.

He’s hesitant to attribute the slight decline to the economy.

New Suffolk “is always going to be an anomaly,” said Superintendent Robert Feger. His kindergarten through grade six school has generally had fewer than 10 students until the last year, when enrollment blossomed to 19. In September, he anticipates 23 students and expects higher numbers to continue for the next several years.

“We don’t fit the mold,” he said of declining enrollments in some districts. Since New Suffolk taxes are about one-third of what Mattituck-Cutchogue residents pay, he thinks that even in a depressed economy, people can still afford to move to that hamlet.

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